Companies are seeing the benefit of fly on the wall documentaries Article icon


KFC requires a yearly supply of 23 million chickens, who enjoy just 35 days of life, on average, before they are gassed. But many simply get thrown away. Each of the 800 branches of the fast food chain produce three tonnes of waste a year – cooked chicken that ends up in huge bins that are often raided by homeless people scavenging for food.

In the three hour-long episodes of the ‘behind the scenes’ corporate TV documentary The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, shown on BBC last month, there were a few nasty nuggets like these to dull the appetite.

And yet, at the same time, this fly-on-the-wall insight into life at KFC gave a good sense of the personality behind the brand – which largely came across as conscientious, fun and caring. Staff reward and recognition schemes loomed large, as well as initiatives to improve customer choice and satisfaction (although its healthy-eating initiative has taken something of a Twitter bashing).

Jenny Packwood, head of communications at KFC UK and Ireland, knew it would have some gritty content – ‘it wouldn’t have felt real if it didn’t’ – but feels the programme went as well as they ever could have hoped. And, although it’s still too early to know its full impact, she is no doubt right in sensing that it has helped people feel closer to the brand.

And that, in these days of authentic communication, could be content marketing gold-dust. ‘Inviting the TV cameras in can transform an organisation’s reputation among internal and external audiences,’ says Andrew Griffin, chief executive at Regester Larkin.

‘Businesses who take part in these documentaries are no longer faceless organisations, invisible beyond a logo and a grand building. Rather, viewers are introduced to real people who are committed to their job and trying to do the best they can. People they can empathise with.’

No wonder then that KFC isn’t the first to go down this path. John Lewis, Greggs, Iceland Foods, Claridge’s and Liberty are just a few organisations that have also opened their doors to TV crews in recent years. But the reality is that such programmes are not designed as corporate PR. They will show both good and bad and, as such, are fraught with risk.

‘Anyone expecting an unquestioning film that looks like it could have been made by the head of corporate affairs will be sorely disappointed,’ says Griffin. ‘Television must entertain and programme makers will inevitably focus on conflict, stress and the more interesting personalities.’

As PR consultant at Iceland Foods, Keith Hann featured prominently in BBC2’s 2013 documentary, Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet. ‘You should be aware that the two things film-makers really love are comedy and jeopardy: the cliff hanger episode ending that leaves viewers eager to tune in next week to find out whether disaster was averted,’ he says. ‘These are the bits that will emerge intact from the editing process.’

Film-makers will typically ensure they have plenty of film to choose from – in Iceland’s case around 1,000 hours, which was boiled down into just three. ‘Unsurprisingly those who ended up with the most screen time tended to be those that the film-makers found the most exciting or amusing. I naturally fell into the latter category.’

In hindsight, Hann says he wishes he’d tried to make fewer bad jokes.

It’s not entirely surprising then, that when KFC’s PR team approached him to share his experiences and give them advice on their forthcoming documentary, he admits to being sceptical as to whether the exercise would enhance KFC’s reputation. ‘Having watched episode one and as much as I could bear of episode two of The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, I have to say that my scepticism remains undiminished,’ he says.

But perhaps some of his reticence stems from Iceland’s bad luck. They were in the middle of filming Life in the Freezer Cabinet when the horsemeat scandal broke. ‘Horsegate was a gift to the TV company and a nightmare for Iceland,’ he says. ‘In a crisis the last thing you need is a camera crew following your every move. Having said that, they had been around long enough for us to have got used to their presence and not be too distracted by them. The real downside was that it brought Iceland’s association with Horsegate (which was, in truth, extremely tangential) back into the public mind when the series aired, nine months after the actual crisis.’

It is also a good example of how dangerous such programmes can be when lack of editorial control can transform what should have been a good behind-the-scenes story into a prolonged reputational crisis. For John Lewis, the answer was to spend a lot of time upfront, negotiating the contract and ensuring that the business would be protected before the start of filming of BBC2’s 2010 documentary Inside John Lewis.


‘We were working direct with the BBC and they would always want to keep editorial control – that’s the premise on which they work,’ says Helen Dickinson, principal consultant at HD Media Consultants and former director of communications at John Lewis. ‘However, there were areas of negotiation.’ They spent three months negotiating the contract, and particularly additional clauses to do with reputation – ‘so there would be no reputational damage to individuals or groups within the business or to the business itself or business suppliers to John Lewis’, she explains.

This meant that when they came to see the near-finished cut of the film, they had some control over content that could be damaging. A scene involving contracted suppliers was removed, for instance, because it showed them standing in a supermarket trolley, which might have compromised the supplier’s reputation around health and safety. They were also able to correct a mistake in the editorial commentary when the crew referred to a recent drop in profits as a loss – ‘we wouldn’t be in business if that was the case,’ says Dickinson.

Their careful approach extended to the filming process too. The TV crew was never left alone, for instance, even though the filming took nine months. ‘There was always someone from John Lewis to help facilitate and listen to what was going on and being said and that was fed back to the project manager so we could understand the angle the production crew were taking,’ explains Dickinson.

This wasn’t an easy task, given that today’s TV crews can operate on minimal resources. When one person with a camera and microphone attached is enough to make a film, it can be incredibly challenging to keep up. ‘Four people could mean four different crews in different places,’ says Dickinson. ‘But they had to let us know where they were going in advance, so that we could have somebody with them.’

For Packwood, keeping abreast of the crew was also difficult. ‘My intention was to be as present as possible but I knew I couldn’t be everywhere, with two crews filming in different locations,’ she says. She ultimately agreed to a slightly different approach.

‘The series producer pleaded with me, saying I’ve done this before and if there’s someone there from a PR company (or you) around all the time it will influence how people behave.’

Packwood believes this approach resulted in a film that came across as very real, natural and believable.


‘You have to allow the TV crew to do what they do best and make interesting TV,’ she says. ‘A large part of my job has been in reputation and crisis management, so I’m micro-managing issues to minimise risk as much as possible. In this situation, we had to do the opposite. It was a real lesson in being totally transparent. You have to have confidence in your own business that the truth is good enough. ’

Even where there was negative content, KFC often found a way to tackle it. For example, knowing that animal welfare would be a major concern, it gave full access to its chicken farm and made a point of explaining its high standards of welfare. So too with waste – the Brixton branch showed a charity worker taking away the waste chicken to the disadvantaged in the community, the inference being that KFC is working to tackle the problem. This wasn’t enough to dispel critical comments in the press and social media, but it showed that KFC had given serious thought to the issues in advance of filming and was ready with content to balance the perspective.

It could also be argued that this more open approach makes for more compelling television. A TV review by The Independent shortly after the first episode of Inside John Lewis, was not critical but did describe the programme as being ‘in absolutely no danger of elevating your heartrate’. The review continued: ‘At one of the very few moments where the presence of a film crew threatened to be revealing – when [John Lewis managing director] Mr Street was rehearsing for a press conference and took an unexpected question about redundancies in the solar plexus – the cameras were obligingly turned off at his request.’

Whether The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop managed to be more exciting may be open to conjecture. But as these documentaries become more commonplace, it is likely that corporates and producers will have to find new ways to engage an audience that will otherwise quickly bore of the business-themed format. This may include allowing TV crews ever more access to the people and the stories that stand out. It’s a risky strategy but there’s no point in doing this if ultimately no-one wants to watch.

The rewards too can be phenomenal. ‘It is absolutely the case that it increases interest and sales, and by extraordinary levels I think,’ says Dickinson. Even at Iceland where the filming didn’t go entirely as hoped, Hann can cite the positives. ‘Iceland’s own people loved the series. It was very good for morale and it led to a huge upsurge in visits to the Iceland careers website, so the message that it was a fun place to work certainly came across loud and clear,’ he says. ‘Feedback from the wider public was also overwhelmingly positive – I would say that compliments outweighed criticism by approximately 80 to 20 per cent.’


For Stephen Watson, chief executive of CTN Communications, the key for success lies at the start of the process. ‘You need to get a measure of comfort and empathy with the production team that are going to do the filming,’ he says. ‘They come in all shapes and sizes and if it doesn’t feel right, then walk away. Because there will inevitably be moments of tension and if there isn’t the basic level of respect it will end in tears.’

Watson recommends investing time up front in getting to know the team, understanding their ambitions for the programme, and how they have pitched it to the network. ‘It should be a collaboration,’ he says.

By way of example, he cites the documentary Inside Claridge’s shown on BBC2 in 2012. ‘Claridge’s was thrilled with the programme, and the hotel manager and director Jane Treays are now great personal friends.They invested time and care in the relationship, Claridge’s wasn’t over-prescriptive and Jane was very careful,’ he says.

How many more companies will allow the TV cameras behind their doors remains to be seen. The evidence suggests that there is no shortage of interest – both among production companies and those that see the future of marketing in total transparency. But where success is about reneging control to a ‘truth’ that may ever be open to interpretation, it is a path that may only ever be taken by the truly bold.


1. Invest a lot of time in the initial stages – getting to know the production team and agreeing the contract. You will not have editorial control but you should be able to negotiate some red lines that you will not cross.

2. Don’t underestimate how long it will take to film a series. A three-hour documentary may require six to nine months filming or around 1,000 hours of footage. Think about the resources (people and money) you might need to manage this.

3. Consider what issues might be uncovered by the programme and what could be done to resolve them before filming starts.

4. Expect some negative coverage. This isn’t corporate PR. The tougher stories may even work to give your brand more personality and make it look real. Ensure you get to see the film before it is aired so that you are ready to respond to any unexpectedly difficult storylines. At this point, you should also be able to challenge anything that appears grossly unbalanced or inaccurate.

5. If something goes wrong during filming (eg, Horsegate), don’t pull up the drawbridge. If you’ve built a good relationship with the production crew from the outset, then you’ll have a better chance of working through it together constructively.

6. Have a clear idea of the messages you want to convey, be careful to consider the film crew’s real intentions when they ask you to do something, and be prepared to say ‘no’ to anything you feel uncomfortable about.