What to learn from watching the BBC

Britain’s iconic broadcaster is subject and reporter in one of the UK’s main news stories. Online corporate communicators need to understand why, David Bowen says.

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The crisis at the BBC, the UK’s public broadcaster, should make communications professionals think hard about the line between ‘mainstream’ and ‘online’ journalism. My use of quotation marks is a clue – I’m not sure there is a line any more. Whether there should be is another matter.
The story started with revelations from a rival broadcaster, ITV, that Jimmy Savile, a radio and television personality who died in 2011, had been a prolific sexual offender but had never been exposed during his life. Attention switched to the BBC when it emerged that Newsnight, a respected BBC news programme, had earlier dropped a planned exposure of Savile as a child abuser. The editor was forced to resign. Last week the same programme ran a film claiming that a “senior Conservative politician” had been involved in abuse in the 1980s. It did not contact him for his side of the story, though it was clear that his name was being circulated on the internet.
This is where the sordid story gets relevant to us. A key Newsnight defence was that it had not named the politician. I was a journalist for 20 years, and I’m shocked that the BBC journalists did not give the man a chance to respond. But in my day the ‘we did not name him’ defence would have been pretty credible. There was no easy way for the public to find his name. Last week I found it in about 15 seconds on Google, as did millions of others.
In other words, we can no longer say traditional media is separate from online media, because people use both, often simultaneously, and may not see a distinction between their credibility.

Distinctions blurring

They should make a distinction. On my newspaper, journalists would not run a story unless they were convinced it was as accurate and balanced as possible. If they had doubts they would express them in the piece and they would always give a right of reply. The story would then go through a checking mill – one or more sub-editors (copy editors), a news or feature editor and, if it was potentially controversial, more senior editors and a libel lawyer.
Apparently the Newsnight story was subject to a similar process, and it still got through – hence the current enquiry. But if you go to Google now you will still easily find the original accusations posted on blogs by people (‘citizen journalists’?) who most certainly did not do any checking. They would not regard it as their job to – and their readers would not regard it as their job to make a judgement on credibility.
And they could all too relevantly point to the high profile columnist on the Guardian newspaper, who also spread the story. He trusted the BBC, I suppose; and many people trusted him.

What should corporate communicators take from this?

Pay attention Mainstream journalists are still by and large the most reliable reporters on your business, and should be given special attention.
Pay more attention But they are not as reliable as they used to be. This must be largely because of the web. Journalists are terrified of missing a scoop, and the main competition comes from the internet (especially blog posts with Twitter their herald). There is a temptation to trade professionalism for speed. It is up to the media organisations that employ them to decide whether that is acceptable, or even desirable. Corporate communicators can do little but watch and hope.
Advise the citizens What to do about ‘citizen journalists’? A first step is to create an ‘A list’ of bloggers who you regard as real experts, and give them the same access as you would a serious professional journalist – they should, for example, be able to pick up the phone to talk to press officers. Some companies are already doing this. It should be commonplace.
Process complaints What about other people posting things you may not want the world to read (true or otherwise)? You need to set up a process that enables you to identify, first, whether the source is credible and/or widely followed and, second, whether the story is spreading fast. If it looks dangerous, you need to use your own Twitter feeds and other channels to counter it. This requires judgement and the authority to move, which is why we recommend the establishment of a ‘3am team’ (perhaps an online specialist, a press officer and a lawyer).
Press for change This is rather beyond the remit of the typical press office, isn’t it? And that is precisely the point. We have moved quickly from reacting to ‘a story’ to a full-blown reputation management strategy. The real lesson from the developing world of internet and social media is that press officers need to move beyond their role as managers of a small group of journalists to defenders of the organisation’s reputation. I doubt many companies would change the name of the press office to ‘reputation management office’ – but that should in effect be its role.
Knock down walls This could – literally – be a good way to go. Siemens has put all its communicators in one big office, like a newsroom. Press officers, investor relations people, the web team, CSR – all are together and happy to talk constantly to one another. If an environmental story pops up, the media (traditional and citizen), the sustainability community, NGOs, the general public all need to be talked to, together not in groups. HR may be interested too. And it all needs to be covered online. May be it is time for functional titles to disappear, to be replaced by a focus on topics or issues.
Name the game Some companies have already moved down this path on their websites. Citigroup this year changed its media section’s title from Press Room to News. This was more than a refinement in label: it still includes press releases but also has a raft of off-platform channels – including blog, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – whose audience goes beyond a traditional media audience.
It’s News, Jim, but not as most enterprises would understand it.

First published 14 November, 2012
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