‘No-one mishandles a crisis quite like the BBC’ – so said one anonymous source in yesterday’s Sunday Times. This comes as a Tweet from the W1’s best-paid presenter, denouncing Government immigration policy, left the Corporation floundering amid its biggest communications crisis of the year so far.
The BBC has been suffering from a well-documented ‘brain drain’ for several months, losing top billers Emily Maitliss, Jon Sopel and Louise Minchin to private rivals – leaving an unsettled company culture it its wake. This perhaps explains why a scandal of this magnitude was a long time coming, playing as it did, into both the culture wars, and the BBC’s own wavering sense of identity.
The first mistake made by the corporation was to overlook the core pillar of any crisis communication plan – preparation. The BBC Comms team should have recognised that with an employee base made up of high-profile, prolific Twitter users, a social media storm was always at the top of the risk register. As Lineker’s Tweet started to send shockwaves through the media, a pre-agreed protocol and dedicated crisis team should have leapt into action, rolling-out a well-rehearsed damage limitation exercise. As it happened, the BBC’s response was both agonisingly slow, and lacking any real clarity. With the Tweet published on Tuesday afternoon, it took until Friday for an official BBC decision on Lineker’s position to be communicated. At this point the statement released was that Lineker had ‘decided he would step back,’ teeing up the inevitable: Lineker himself making it clear the decision was not mutual.
Far from defusing the situation, this confused response further exacerbated it, detonating the long-ticking time bomb of dissatisfaction at Broadcasting House.
If the BBC’s failure to act quickly and decisively was its first failing, its second was underestimating the mutiny brewing amid its own staff. As Lineker’s colleagues fell behind him, refusing to appear on-air out of solidarity with the former striker, the story inevitably snowballed – rapidly becoming an internal comms issue as much as an external one. An apologetic email to staff from Director General Tim Davie seemed to do little to extinguish the revolutionary flames, with ‘senior reporters’ briefing against the Corporation and staff chats leaked to the Sunday papers.
All of this points to the importance of including internal comms as well as external in any crisis plan. The two are often inextricably intertwined, and disgruntled employees – if not effectively communicated with – can quickly become the story more than the original incident.
The mishandling throughout the week resulted in the inevitable – a painful climbdown from the BBC after days of standoff. Lineker is back on air and the BBC is attempting to maintain a ‘business as usual’ façade – but the damage has been done. In the end, with the BBC long hailed as a bastion of British journalism, the surprise was not the crisis itself, but its handling, given the 2,000 professional communicators in its ranks. In an organisation brimming with journalistic talent, a single Tweet was enough to bring it to its knees.
To find out more about how WA can help advise in a crisis, contact RachelFord@Wacomms.co.uk
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