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BBC Future of TV Media

How BBC should have responded to suspended presenter scandal

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By Andy Barr, Head Yeti

July 10, 2023 | 7 min read

Andy Barr, founder and CEO of 10 Yetis, assesses the broadcaster's crisis comms reaction to unsavory accusations levied at one of its well-known presenters, who at the time of publishing has been suspended but remains unnamed.

Crisis comms

Just as the dust began to settle on the ITV/Schofield crisis communications drama, the BBC stepped in and invited the media world to “hold its pint”.

Let’s be honest from the start. We can’t really assess how well, or badly, the BBC is handling this situation because all the facts are not yet known. Furthermore, the idle speculation that is amassing across the gutter-swampland of social media about the potential name of the individual concerned is not only illegal, but also truly horrifying to watch. The modern-day stocks and rotten fruit are being unleashed once more and it is disgusting to see.

Have we learned nothing?

If we are trying to keep this to the information we do know, I feel I can say with some confidence, and based on my own experience of helping organizations navigate their way out of a crisis, this is currently a shit-show*.

From the moment that the issue was presented to the BBC, reported to be back in May 2023, the crisis communications team should have been assembled. Even if it was felt at this time that there was likely no case to answer, it had such high-profile ramifications and risk that an escalation plan should have been put in place. From what I am hearing from the age-old source of “insiders”, the wider crisis comms team was not consulted.

Again, trying to steer well clear of the details of this situation, we can look at the wider crisis comms plan of action that should have been deployed.

Crisis comms 101 is making sure, from the outset, that you have a strong rebuttal team in place to address misreporting. This will usually involve a member of the legal team being on hand to work alongside the comms team to address “fake news”. The BBC clearly did not have this in place.

As the rumor mill swung into full effect, some of the biggest BBC talent was seemingly left to try and fight their own corner and clear their own names. This could be because some are freelancers and not directly employed by the BBC. You would hope that, in comparison, directly employed BBC staff would receive the duty of care you would expect from an employer, including helping with reputation management.

To the BBC freelance community though, this detail won’t matter. It will leave a bitter taste that they were forced to post their own defense on social media.

Did the BBC react quickly enough? We don’t know enough of the details to make an informed comment on this but, based on its historic approach to dealing with crisis, I would say not.

I will end though on a rather somber potential narrative for the BBC.

The organization needs to be careful that this does not turn into a politicized issue. It is no secret that the BBC and the government have been at loggerheads over the licence fee. The government has long questioned the need for the licence fee. This morning we have already seen politicians making comments about the current situation. The comments are muted and in line with crisis comms 101, eg “we can’t make any comment whilst this is being investigated” etc.

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The government can alter and contribute to the shape of the media agenda though. If it wanted to, it could help move the story down a notch, in terms of putting other news out there. It won’t be so inclined to help while the licence fee and news balance debate is ongoing, however.

A few reassurances to the government about change from the BBC, most likely held in some smoke-filled members' club in London or Manchester, could well see the government take a closer look at either helping to squash, or alternatively if it doesn’t like what is being offered, pour fuel on the flames.

Maybe I have made a leap too far with the government intervention angle, but I have been right a few times in my lifetime (but I will admit, not that often).

*A highly technical crisis communications term

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