Undercover Boss and beyond

Zoe Melarkey, PR programme manager at npower, explains why the energy company took part in Channel 4's Undercover Boss and the impact it had on the business

It's fair to say that the energy industry is under attack at the moment and we've got some weighty reputation issues to contend with - perhaps second only to the banks. There are negative stories about energy companies in the media almost daily, and whilst we might feel that much of the negativity is unfair, the fact remains that many consumers, journalists and stakeholders have little or no trust in us.

In this kind of climate, it's very easy for a communications team to adopt a reactive approach: let's keep our head down and not draw attention to ourselves. At npower though, we were keen to be more proactive and tackle the reputation issues head on: to earn back trust by being as open and transparent as possible. And then, earlier this year, the perfect opportunity presented itself: we were approached to take part in Channel 4's Undercover Boss, where a senior executive is filmed working undercover in their own firm to investigate how it works and identify how it can be improved.

This is exactly the kind of thing that, in most cases, PR professionals would steer well clear of. For us though, there were various factors that convinced us it was the right way to go, namely:

  • Our external reputation bore little relation to the reality of the company we saw on a daily basis: in particular, our people are excellent, hard working and helpful. We were very optimistic this fact would come across to viewers.
  • A common criticism is that energy companies are run by rich 'fat cat' businessmen totally out of touch with the real world. We knew we had just the man to challenge this perception: our newly appointed chief operating officer, Kevin McCullough, who had just been put in control of all customer facing operations. Kevin has worked for the company since leaving school at 16. He started off shovelling coal and worked his way up to the board. He's a very blunt, honest and down to earth Yorkshireman and if anyone could challenge the 'fat cat' image, it was Kevin.
  • And finally, simply by doing the programme we would demonstrate our intention of being open and honest: there aren't that many ways of being more transparent than inviting a film crew into your business for a month.

Despite all these considerations, it was still a high risk strategy. Undercover Boss is a 'fly on the wall' documentary, governed by Ofcom regulations requiring us to sign away all editorial control: we legally had no say or influence over what would be included in the final programme. We also had to get board sign off and involve the right people within the business, whilst keeping it a secret to make sure that Kevin's cover wasn't blown.

Research and preparation

Once signed off, the production company spent four weeks of intense research and preparation - and the PR team worked closely with them during this time, introducing them to various contacts across the business. Filming itself was also an arduous process, especially for Kevin who spent more than 60 hours undercover, in the guise of unemployed 'Tom Dixon'.

One point we were very clear on is that this couldn't just be a one off and that we had to maintain the momentum started by the programme. So whilst this was all taking place, we'd also been developing plans to launch an npower Twitter feed to share our news, give our opinions and also to demonstrate that we're listening. The plan was to make our Twitter account a bit different to the usual corporate feeds and we'd been doing a lot of research around @comcastcares in America. This feed, set up a few years ago when utilities company Comcast was the most hated business in America, used a senior executive supported by a hand picked team of staff.

Based on this model, in the days prior to the programme going on air, we launched @npowerhq - a feed headed up Kevin, to give customers access to the very top people in npower. Kevin also started a blog at npowerhq.tumblr.com to give his personal views on some of the issues our industry is facing at the moment.

Media follow through

As the reason for taking part in the programme was to be more demonstrably transparent, we arranged a wide range of media interviews around Undercover Boss. Volker Beckers, our chief executive, went on the Today programme to talk about the need for energy companies to be more open and Kevin did many national and regional print and broadcast interviews. A piece in The Times summed up his motivations perfectly: 'I'm sick and tired of the energy industry transforming itself into a faceless machine. I've had enough, so I decided to put myself out there. The easiest thing is to keep your mouth shut and your head down.'

On 2 August, npower's episode of Undercover Boss was seen by around 2.5 million viewers - making it the second most watched show on Channel 4 that week. We followed online chatter closely; there were 1,000 mentions on Twitter alone during the hour of the show. As expected, many were negative and dismissive, but a surprising number were also supportive, with people saying it was a brave and bold thing to do. For once, at least, we'd started a debate.

The other reaction - the scale of which we'd not anticipated - was a huge amount of chat about Kyle, our meter reader and Peter Kay doppelgänger. He was trending worldwide on Twitter the night the show aired and was quickly dubbed 'Meter Kay'. The buzz continued when, in the days following the programme, we placed adverts featuring him in the national press.

As part of our management of this project, we arranged for some analysis of the programme by a panel of viewers - made up of a mixture of npower customers and non-customers. The results were good: prior to the programme, over three quarters of noncustomers felt neutral towards us as a brand and none felt positive.

Afterwards, this went up to 41 per cent positive and only 23 per cent neutral. Other stats showed 74 per cent of viewers believed npower is a company manned by good people trying their best and 56 per cent of people would recommend us to friends and family. For npower, taking part in Undercover Boss was absolutely the right thing to do. We know it was very much a first step in demonstrating an open and accessible approach - and we know we've got a lot more to do to prove that we're listening and improving. But the show was  unique chance to let people see our company for themselves and make their own mind up, without the filter of media commentary.

As Kevin himself commented in his Times interview: 'The industry has not done enough in the past to position ourselves in the right kind of context. We have allowed ourselves to become a machine which gets shouted at every time we make a profit... We have a voice.'