How they kept it quiet - The BBC PR strategy behind Peter Capaldi being named Doctor Who
Peter Capaldi will be the 12th actor to officially play The Doctor it was revealed last night in a one-off programme, Doctor Who Live, aired on BBC One. Usually the announcement of the next actor to play the lead in the long-running series is made through an announcement to the media, but the BBC decided to make more of the announcement through a plan to create a buzz in a manner that the term ‘watercooler moment’ doesn’t do justice.
The naming of a new Doctor touches a number of audiences - children, adults, fans around the world, and indeed the show was simultaneously broadcast on BBC America, where the programme has grown in popularity, in order to allow that audience to share the experience.
Michelle Osborn, head of communications for BBC One and BBC Drama explains that the decision was taken to produce a live event less than a month ago, following Smith’s decision to depart.
“As soon as you make that decision there were a lot of contingencies put in place to make sure that people don’t know that it’s even happening and to also make a plan, and then we had to strategically decide when to announce that we’re doing the show,” Osborn states.
“It’s about BBC One being the home of big live events and real moments that brings the nation together. That is a core role that BBC One does, amongst other things. That is what the channel does with things like the Olympics which highlighted that it can bring the nation together for big moments, similar to the Andy Murray final at Wimbledon which got record ratings.
“When you have got these big real moments, and the appetite from when Matt announced he was leaving, it was is a big moment when you announce a new Doctor and the appetite and the enthusiasm and the coverage that Matt’s departure had secured highlighted that this was still front page news for people.”
As with any major secret, only those who really must know were informed of the identity of the actor who was to succeed Smith, with a media strategy devised around organising and then promoting the programme, without giving away the nature of what it planned to announce.
The show itself was announced on Friday morning (2 August) after an embargoed released was sent out about ‘a Doctor Who related announcement’. Some websites, led by Metro.co.uk, went with the story ahead of the midnight deadline, leading to mainstream press speculating widely over who the actor would be, with bookmarkers closing betting on Capaldi by Friday evening. Despite that however this did not cement the fact that he had indeed signed.
Around 10 people knew ahead of Sunday when those involved in the production were informed, although most still did not know until the big reveal itself, with the codename ‘Whodini’ used by all when referring to the actor, Osborn reveals.
“It was hard but it was very strategically planned because we were announcing so close to the wire which helped. If it had been out there for two weeks that we were doing this live show – but in order to get an audience for that live show the producers needed to get an audience so we needed to put it out there on the audience services website, but we disguised it as an pilot for a show looking at Doctor Who’s 50 years, so we knew we would get fans in the mix but we didn’t tell them what the show was.
The BBC brought together the Doctor Who online and social media team to work with the communications and marketing teams to build up excitement about the programme, releasing a drip feed of announcements, including guest confirmations for the show.
A photoshoot with fashion photographer Rankin was also arranged, sending out the picture of official Capaldi as soon as the announcement was made through Twitter and to the media to use, while the programme attracted a peak audience of 6.9m viewers.
In the end, the BBC Doctor Who website crashed, with over 800m tweets sent in total around #doctorwho and #petercapaldi, while 89.4 per cent of all conversation on Twitter during the programme transmission was about the show.
“That’s a huge audience and it’s while it’s not definite that we’d definitely do it again, we’d look at it as BBC One is the place where the nation should come together for big live events and this is the opportunity to do something fun and exciting and if it’s what the audience want then we should look at doing these kinds of things,” Osborn confirmed.
Monday’s morning’s newspapers also confirm the success of the strategy, with Rankin's Capaldi picture making many of the national front pages and reaction to the casting decision seemingly universally positive.
A PR strategy success then it would seem.