Blatantly Bad Communications? Article icon

Blatantly

Blatantly Bad Communications?

From 'Bland Boring Channel' to 'Bureaucratic Bunch of Clots' there have been plenty of joke acronyms around the BBC since the corporation was founded in 1922.

However, with the credibility of the organisation at or near an all-time low following its handling of recent sex abuse scandals, it's hard to say whether 'Blatantly Bad Communications' sums it up more accurately at present.
 
A call to the BBC press office to discuss the corporation's crisis prompted a public relations officer to ask: 'Which one?'
 
Yet, following George Entwistle's resignation after just 54 days as BBC director general, Auntie's bloomers don't seem quite so amusing any more.
 
It's hard to pontificate on what has happened to the organisation over the past couple of months while its repercussions are still playing out.
 
But there's already a debate as to whether the scandals demonstrate dreadful communications, disastrous leadership or a wider organisational malaise in the heart of one of Britain's best-loved institutions.
 
Lest anyone has forgotten, the crises began when ITV broadcast allegations that the late BBC TV and radio presenter Jimmy Savile abused young girls - claims that had been investigated but not screened by a dropped Newsnight investigation.
 
A subsequent Panorama programme claimed to have discovered a paedophile ring operating within the BBC for more than 20 years.
 
Then a Newsnight probe into a child abuse scandal at a North Wales children's home filmed Steve Messham, a former resident of the home claiming that a prominent but unnamed Conservative politician had sexually abused him in the 1970s. A whispering campaign on Twitter wrongly named the politician as former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine and events for the BBC quickly spiralled out of control. The Guardian subsequently ran a front page story exonerating Lord McAlpine and saying it had been a case of mistaken identity.
 
The death knell
 
Entwistle's corporate demise and the accompanying reputational damage to the BBC looked inevitable from the moment he went into battle against veteran interviewer John Humphrys on Radio Four's Today programme. The then director general said he had no idea about the Newsnight investigation until the day after broadcast and had not seen The Guardian's story.
McAlpine promptly put out a statement denying any involvement, while Messham's solicitor denied that McAlpine had been in any way involved and issued an apology. But it took the BBC 12 hours before it admitted Newsnight has got its story wrong. Entwistle's resignation came soon afterwards.
 
The chief executive of a major London public relations agency believes blame has to be laid at the door of the BBC's communications department. 'What I find incomprehensible is how this story was allowed to develop during that Today interview. I just don't understand how he [Entwistle] could have been allowed to go on that programme without being fully prepared and to come across as totally inept.
 
'The BBC spends £80 million a year on communications and marketing so you would expect the communications department to have highly-prepared its director general. In a situation like that, you rehearse every scenario and prepare for every possible question. Maybe they got lazy and complacent because the interview was by one of their own but in the end it was that interview that meant that Entwistle had to go. He was brought down by his own troops.'
 
That's not a view shared by a former BBC senior insider who believes that the organisation's communications department is being made a scapegoat for poor operational decision-making and a culture relying on legal, rather than communications, advice.
 
He says: 'Ultimately, the communications function can only communicate the decisions and judgments that have been made. I find it impossible to believe Entwistle was not briefed before the Humphrys' interview. He would definitely have been prepared but I think it would have been by the BBC's legal team and they would have been concerned about legal consequences, rather than reputational crisis management.
 
'The BBC's communications team was perhaps slow to respond at the beginning of the crisis when Savile's alleged victims started coming forward but I don't think you can accuse them of anything else.'
 
Everybody knows best
 
Another BBC insider agrees. 'When you work at the BBC, there are always people piling in with views about the corporation,' he says. 'But in my experience very few of them seem to be formed on any base of knowledge and I don't know how much any of it impacts on the BBC's ability to do crisis communications.'
 
The BBC is trusted worldwide as a bastion of responsible broadcasting, with a £5 billion annual budget and more journalists than in the whole of what used to be called Fleet Street.
 
However, the latest scandals also exposed the organisation to criticisms of its inner workings with allegations of arrogance, old boys' networks and a 'leadership by committee' chain.
 
'The BBC's flagship current affairs programme has gratuitously and wrongly accused an innocent man of being a paedophile,' wrote Labour Party adviser Dan Hodges in his blog.
 
'At the same time it has helped perpetuate a moral panic, fuelled a media feeding frenzy over an alleged sex abuse ring at the heart of the British establishment and muddied the waters of a major ongoing police investigation. This is not Beeb bashing or navel-gazing... the culture within the BBC is essentially What we do is the best simply because we are the BBC and we are doing it. But in many areas the BBC is no longer the broadcasting gold standard and hasn't been for many years.'
 
A former BBC journalist and editor who is now an in-house corporate communications director at a financial institution voices agreement. 'I was not surprised at all when the Savile controversy blew up, though I didn't know anything about that particular case,' he says, 'because the BBC is just a fundamentally dysfunctional organisation.
 
'The mistakes in communications during this crisis have just been symptomatic of a much wider organisational malaise. The whole place needs shaking up from top to bottom.'
 
The BBC communications department did not return calls for this article, while James Benjamin, a director of PR agency Kreab Gavin Anderson, to which the BBC is referring many media enquiries, said the agency's client is not the BBC but the review chaired by former Sky News head Nick Pollard into whether there were any failings in the BBC's management of the initial Newsnight investigation.
 
A slew of other reviews have been commissioned into the Savile and Newsnight episodes as well as into the BBC's culture, practices and anti sexual harassment policies.
 
Much rides on Entwistle's successor, Royal Opera House chief executive Lord Hall, who appears to fit the bill as someone who can be an eloquent and credible media front man as well as an adept change manager of this huge national institution.
 
BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, meanwhile, is expected to order and oversee a detailed analysis about the extent to which the present crisis was caused by resources, structures or human error. However, the overall answer to where the BBC crisis goes from here partly depends on whether the disclosures and resignations are at an end.
 
One corporate communicator believes Patten will also have to go. 'He looks like a grandee with all these sinecures,' he says, referring to Patten's portfolio of non-executive positions. 'It's a full time occupation sorting this out, and cannot be done by someone holding such a large suite of roles.'
 
Follow the rules
 
Notwithstanding such potential developments, Ross Gow, managing partner of reputation management agency Acuity Reputation, says it's now about following classic crisis management principles, with communicators not assuming, evading, covering up, blaming, over-promising, speculating or fabricating in their public statements.
 
'The BBC needs to have one voice and to be as transparent as possible; certainly not to be seen to be hiding information,' he states. 'It needs to establish a theme or message for all communications and to stick to that and it must be proactive, planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
 
'The BBC brand has been damaged in its core area of excellence: news and current affairs. Now the scandal should be used as an opportunity for the kind of fundamental change that will ensure the future of what is still a much-loved institution for the rest of the 21st Century.'
 
NEW OPPORTUNITIES
 
There's no such thing as an ill wind in corporate communications. It is just a matter of for whom it blows. For Britain's third biggest public relations agency Bell Pottinger, this old PR adage was illustrated by the BBC crisis providing an opportunity to further expand into reputation and crisis management.
 
The agency's first major role in this area since its recent management buyout came in acting for the family of Ava Rausing, the billionaire socialite found dead at her London home earlier this year. Its second arose when the agency was hired by former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine after he was wrongly linked on Twitter to child abuse allegations at a North Wales children's home at the centre of a BBC Newsnight investigation.
 
Bell Pottinger was hired by McAlpine immediately after the allegations emerged and chief executive James Henderson says it set about clearing its client's name, working with lawyer Andrew Reid and contacting the BBC to demand a retraction and apology and to issue legal threats against people spreading the allegations on Twitter.
 
He says his team worked quickly to liaise with McAlpine's legal advisers and deny the allegations in detail immediately after they surfaced.
 
The BBC and ITV, which was brought into the debate after presenter Philip Schofield confronted Prime Minister David Cameron with a list of alleged paedophiles identified on the Internet, were contacted. They were told that McAlpine would defend his innocence in the courts and a fully detailed personal statement was prepared that set out the former politician's strong rebuttal of the allegations. The whole story was effectively killed in a single day, Henderson says.
 
Where the story has not ended is that McAlpine and his team intend to make legal history by suing people who spread the rumours on Twitter for defamation.
 
'The most important thing was not just clearing Lord McAlpine's name but making it clear that he had no involvement in this at all, and was the totally innocent, victim of a case of mistaken identity,' says Henderson. 'We wanted to make it clear that this was not about politics; it was about clearing an innocent man of a dreadful crime. We got the whole thing done on the day of the programme. We put out a personal statement after all the media interest and the story was completely retracted.'