BBC senior managers probably hoped the Smith report (published Feb 25th) would lead to a day or two of heavy duty media work and then business as usual.
Like many of these key moments though, it’s impossible to draw a line. The ongoing story about Tony Blackburn is likely to run for a while. Campaigners claiming the report to be a whitewash are not likely to be silenced. And it’s hard to see how this won’t be taken up over and over again in Parliament. In the context of the forthcoming Charter renewal and the Secretary of State’s views on the BBC, this is a reputational problem that won’t be going away any day soon.
In one sense, there is little the Comms people at the BBC can do to stop, or deal with, much of this. It is probably wise to let some issues play themselves out.
But there are strategies the Corporation can adopt, and perhaps already is adopting, to navigate a way through the problems it faces.
When looking at the topic of reputational damage, you can’t do better than check with William Benoit’s Image Repair Theory.
Benoit has taken all the possible responses to reputation damage and put them into a handy classification list. These include denial – “its not true” shifting the blame “nothing to do with me guv” and mortification “yep I did it and I’m really sorry”. Now obviously the first two strategies here are not open to the BBC. But many of Benoit’s categories are.
The first real response by the BBC was Director General Tony Hall’s statement to the press conference immediately after publication of the Smith report. So what did he say and how did he say it?
The speech begins with a clear example of the mortification strategy. An apology and admission of responsibility. There was, of course, no other option here. But it’s instructive to see how long this passage is. A lot of crisis communications statements start this way with an admission but swiftly move on to next steps. Hall, in contrast, takes 29 lines or paragraphs. Look at some of the quotes.
“So today we say sorry. We let you down and we know it.”
“A serial rapist and a predatory sexual abuser both hid in plain sight at the BBC for decades…”
“The scale and nature of what they did was truly terrible.
The way Savile used his celebrity to promise access to excitement and fun, and then grotesquely exploited it. The oppressive power of his fame and his physical presence. The sense that no one would believe a complaint. Even in their own families, survivors felt alone. The idea that he was known as King Jimmy – there was no escape from him – and, I quote, “no one will believe you”.
Hall’s speech then makes use of what Benoit would refer to as Corrective Action. Depending on context this can range from replacing a broken product right through to a complete change in the organisation. Hall stresses what has already been done and what the BBC plans to do.
“But let me also be clear: since I became Director-General, we haven’t been standing still – we have made this a priority – and there is much we have done already:
“We now have a new child protection policy, shared across the industry, and a detailed procedure for complaints.
“We have child protection advisers, working together across the organisation.
“We have also put in place an improved whistle-blowing policy, supported by an independent investigations unit.
“And we’ve brought in a wide-ranging set of measures to encourage people to raise concerns about bullying and harassment – with a confidential hotline, independent experts assigned to cases and a service to allow mediation to take place wherever possible.”
A third Benoit category is that of Reducing Offensiveness. There are several variations , one being called Bolstering. Bolstering basically translates as “there are good things about me/about my actions too”. So if Bill Clinton were talking about Monica Lewinsky, he might admit the act but also talk about the great things he was doing as President. Or if a company had manufactured a faulty car, it might talk about the speed with which it organised a recall. In this case there are small elements of Bolstering in Hall’s speech. Given the context, this could never have been the major approach, but the stress on what the BBC has already done can be categorised this way as can this quote.
Referring to an external review he said: “They found that the BBC has strong child protection policies in place and that our whistle-blowing policy ranks well compared to other organisations. But they also made 53 recommendations for improvement. Of those, 51 are now complete, one is underway and in one case we have agreed to take forward what needs to be done in a different way.”
However, given the context, Hall was 100% correct to focus almost entirely on Mortification and Corrective Action as his strategies.
So, what now for BBC Communicators?
There is a danger in being too proactive in announcing every move towards change. While being open and transparent matters , it is important that the BBC does not come across as “bullish” about its reform actions. It would be better for future announcements to be seen in the context of wider developments. And of course Lord Hall has flagged up his plans to make announcements on structural change later this year.
The tone of questions at the press conference showed that there will be a hunt for senior heads. Some of the journalists pursued lines naming specific BBC executives. This means the BBC should expect the manhunt to continue for quite some time. It’s important for the Corporation not to get drawn into defending individuals (although simple statements of fact will be needed in some cases)
Relationships with survivors and those representing them will be key over the next months, or even years. Hall has already talked about working with at least one organisation, and of the BBC being in listening mode. But the Smith report has been described as a whitewash, and not just by campaigners but by some who have worked at or for the BBC.
The problem of course is that the BBC is not the report’s author. However, the Corporation is the only organisation that can deal with these accusations. Hall and his colleagues will need to find ways of showing that they are going beyond the report and beyond its recommendations . To be fair, this was the tone of his press conference. But this is very tricky as some survivors may feel justice is only served by particular individuals being named .
I used to think that the least desirable job in Public Relations was press officer for Network Rail. I suspect today many today would put Head of Comms for the BBC at the top of that list. It will be instructive to see how the Corporation manages its communications around this issue, and around its future, as we near Charter Renewal season.
Paula Keaveney’s blog was originally published in Influence, from the CIPR.