The importance of strategic communication for television public relations by student Laura Hernández Fuentes

Department of Media and Communication: MSc Strategic Communication Leader Seminar Series.

Through the format of the strategic communications seminars, we have approached the subject through different contexts. On the 7th December 2016 Marion Bentley showed us how strategic communication works when doing public relations in television.

Marion Bentley works as group publicity manager for Channel 4, where she has been developing her career for 11 years. Channel 4 is always aiming to challenge and to engage their audience in the ongoing concerns within the United Kingdom. Also, it attempts “to give a voice to diverse groups in the UK, in particular those that tend to be under-represented on TV”.  As Marion highlighted: “We are trying to challenge people to think about things differently and inspire a change, which means that a lot of programmes are very controversial”; often things provoke a huge reaction and Marion and her team are responsible for handling reaction to these issues.

Public relations is responsible for media; dealing with all the incoming requests, information, pictures and interviews. Also, they put into practice the corporate strategy to preserve and improve Channel 4 public image. A key element of their strategic public relations is prioritising the programmes that they are going to publicize; those that are going to deliver ratings and to drive audiences.

Marion explained the strategic plan that Channel 4 developed for their exclusive reporting of the Paralympics. The marketing team developed and launched a campaign called “We’re the Superhumans” including a promotional video. Its purpose was to involve the public in the Paralympic sport; “we were a leading voice in changing public perception around disability”. She explained the PR team gave voice to the campaign by means of premiering the video in an event surrounded by TV producers and celebrities and improving the coverage in press and social media and, once the games started, by holding interviews and gathering views behind the scenes with the Paralympic athletes.

However, there are some occasions when public relations have to act faster and the planning develops differently. Marion explained the case of the documentary “Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath”. Ian Brady is a British serial killer responsible, with Myra Hindley, for the deaths of five children in the 60s. The team interviewed Brady’s mental health advocate and during the interview she revealed the existence of an envelope in which Brady said where the body of the only child who couldn’t be found was buried. This information became known unintentionally before the documentary was delivered and through this, the story became much bigger. In Marion words; “we were getting a lot of criticism, people said that this is a publicity style typical from Channel 4, not caring about the victims”. At that point, the public relations team reacted, dealing with media and preparing Paddy, the director of the film, for some interviews.

Marion also discussed “Benefits Street” one of the series that has defined Channel 4. Before delivering this program, she said the team knew that it was going to be controversial, but not at the level that it was. The series followed the lives of a number of benefits claimants on James Turner Street in Birmingham.  Channel 4 received lot of criticism from different angles with suggestions that the series not only highlighted the difficulties of life on benefits but also demonised benefit claimants. Marion and her team were in charge of applying the proper response to it; people managing the phone, media training with spokespeople.  Rather than close down debate, Channel 4 wanted to encourager further discussion, therefore they held a live TV debates after an episode of the series to discuss its impact.

We are very thankful to Marion Bentley for sharing her experience with us and explaining how public relations is performed in Channel 4.

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