Woman looks at BBC website

The BBC and PR: Why it’s a World Icon, and How it Can Stay That Way

It goes by many names: Auntie, the Beeb, the BBC. As one of the biggest state-funded media organisations in the world, it’s no surprise that the British Broadcasting Corporation has become a cultural icon. But what are the top threats to the BBC’s public relations efforts and what can we learn from them?

Let’s start with what the British Broadcasting Corporation stands for.

The BBC Royal Charter

Old BBC sign

In its Royal Charter, the BBC sets out its goals:

  • Universality: funded by a licence fee, the BBC is available to everyone, ‘serving all audiences’ for free and without advertisements.
  • Impartiality: the BBC is ‘independent in all matters’ from the government and politics, making it authoritative and reputable.
  • Quality: the BBC provides ‘services which inform, educate and entertain’ without cutting any ethical corners.

Popular news source

As a result, a 2019 Ofcom report found the BBC to be ‘the most-used news source’ in the country. And in 2015, the directors of Nordic public service media companies called the BBC ‘a beacon for other broadcasters’ and a role model to emulate.

However, as highly respected as it is, even the BBC gets things wrong. The broadcaster has been criticised for failing to reach younger generations, accused of political bias, and lambasted for ethical faux pas like the Bashir-Diana interview scandal of 2021.

Like any organisation, the BBC lives and dies by its reputation. And data from a 2021 YouGov survey shows that a third of the UK population are now indifferent to it.

Let’s start with the most contentious issue and biggest BBC PR challenge of them all: the licence fee.

The licence fee: a blessing and a curse

The mandatory fee we pay to the BBC for owning a telly is controversial. Today, 60% of the general population think it provides poor value for money, and 40% think it’s outright unfair.

As a result, plenty of people have called for it to be scrapped (including the PM).

But a licence fee is what enables the BBC to provide top-quality content, unmatched by any other media outlet.

Most famously, the Beeb doesn’t have to show ads between programmes. Since almost every human being on the planet hates ads, that’s a massive PR win right out of the gate.

The fee also funds extremely popular, high-quality original series. Shows like Sherlock, Luther and Line of Duty are loved by millions. Some, like Doctor Who, are cultural icons in their own right.

Finally, the fee means the BBC can offer more variety than other outlets. In 2020, Director-General Lord Hall compared the BBC to streaming services, saying the BBC offers sports, news, radio broadcasts and other things that Netflix doesn’t.

The problem with universality

There’s a lot to like about the licence fee. It helps the BBC stand out, and a unique brand is the cornerstone of good PR. So why is it unpopular?

It comes down to the first point in that Royal Charter: universality. As Hall put it, a taxpayer-funded service like the BBC has ‘got to give something to everybody’. Unfortunately, that’s becoming less and less true.

The licence fee made perfect sense for the first years of the BBC’s existence, when it had a monopoly on TV broadcasting. But as more ways to get news and entertainment appeared, the licence fee became ‘an anachronism in a world of choice’, as a former BBC journalist called it.

Take the internet, for instance. A 2019 study from eMarketer found that the average UK adult gets 55% of their media intake online, compared to 23% for television and 15% for radio. As such, a brand can’t treat the internet as an afterthought. The web is a constant stream of breaking stories, so you need to be on top of your online PR.

Read more about digital PR here: What is Digital PR?

Digital spend

According to the BBC’s 2019 Annual Plan, only 10% of its budget went on digital services. In contrast, TV got 70%, and radio 20%. Meanwhile, a study from Reuters and Oxford University found that the BBC accounted for 63% of all radio listening, but just 1.5% of time on digital media.

BBC 2019 spend graph

Source: BBC Annual Plan 2019

These stats go to show that the BBC public relations team are missing a trick by not meeting its audience where they are.

By investing in digital content, the BBC will fulfil Hall’s claim of ‘giving something to everybody’. It will help people appreciate the positives of the licence fee – lack of advertising, original series, variety – and stop the BBC’s status as a cultural icon from slipping.

Key lesson: keeping up with shifting demographics is the cornerstone of good PR.

Political bias and reform

Despite its Royal Charter, the BBC has been accused of being politically biased by pretty much every political faction out there. Right-wingers think it represents a metropolitan elite that’s disconnected from ‘normal’ people. As The Sun asks, ‘why pay the licence fee when the BBC despises ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and Union Jack flags?’ Left-wingers think it’s biased towards the right, especially when covering Jeremy Corbyn or the Iraq War.

To be clear, this isn’t really the BBC’s fault.

A 2018 report from Ofcom found that no complaints of bias filed against the BBC held water. These attacks happen because the BBC is so big: being top dog means there’s a target painted on your back. For example, party leaders on both sides criticised the channel’s 2019 election coverage.

And, of course, other news outlets have a vested interest in smearing a rival that gets subsidised by the government.

Whether it’s true or not, the negative press has affected the public’s opinion of the BBC. Ofcom’s report on news consumption from the same year found that only 61% of people thought it was impartial. That’s lower than both ITV and Sky News.

The way forward

There are a few ways the BBC could counter this perception. They could give up being impartial and embrace opinion content, as LBC radio presenter Maajid Nawaz has suggested. BBC presenters could make their political leanings explicit, on an even footing with networks like LBC. But this would sacrifice one of the BBC’s unique selling points.

A better approach could be one suggested by the Media Reform Coalition: increasing the BBC’s regionality and diversity. According to the MRC, the BBC is a ‘highly centralised organisation, built around a London-based managerial and editorial structure that excludes regional voices’.

In response, current Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, acknowledged that the corporation ‘must do better on diversity’, both in terms of its programming and workforce. This led to the introduction of the BBC’s Diversity and Inclusion Plan and an online system called Diamond, which collects diversity data on programmes the BBC commissions.

This is a step in the right direction.

By sticking to their guns and staying impartial, the BBC will remain unique in the British media landscape. While increased diversity will help squash future claims of political bias.

Martin Bashir and ethical standards

Because it’s financially independent, the BBC is meant to hold itself to a higher standard. But the Martin Bashir scandal of May 2021 revealed major ethical failings on its part.

The debacle began when a report by Lord Dyson revealed the journalist’s famous 1995 interview with Princess Diana had been obtained using forged bank documents. The BBC, it turned out, were fully aware of Bashir’s deception but had turned a blind eye.

When the story was exposed, the BBC got lambasted in the media putting its reputation as the most trusted network in jeopardy.

The BBC’s actions even led Prince William to make a scathing public statement. He said, ‘the BBC not only let my mother down, and my family down; they let the public down too.’

Needless to say, this is less than ideal PR for the BBC.

Equal pay row

This is not the first time the BBC has been exposed for acting unethically. In 2018, the then China editor, Carrie Gracie resigned from her post, citing pay inequality with her male colleagues.

In an open letter, she accused the BBC of a ‘secretive and illegal pay culture’, and claimed it was facing a ‘crisis of trust’, after it was revealed that two-thirds of its stars earning more than £150,000 were male.

It took the BBC months to admit wrongdoing and give Grace her back-dated pay.

The issue here isn’t that the BBC did something wrong: every organisation is going to have a SNAFU from time to time, and the BBC’s screw-ups aren’t on the same level as other media outlets (think of the News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal in 2011, which got the entire paper shut down). The problem is how the BBC handled them.

In an age of fake news, the BBC’s position as a trusted source of information is its most powerful weapon. With the Bashir and Grace scandals, the company fell short of its hallmark high standards of integrity and transparency.

From a PR point of view, the BBC should have been open and honest from the get-go. More specifically, they should have sacked Bashir and given Grace equal pay immediately, made a public apology, and vowed to make sure similar blunders never happen again.

This would assure people that the BBC was holding itself to the standards laid out in its Royal Charter.

The World Service and BBC public relations

One of the biggest positives for BBC PR efforts is the World Service, which broadcasts across the world in more than forty languages.

Spreading your brand overseas is incredibly hard. You’ve got to:

  • Break into multiple new markets from scratch
  • Have the resources for top-notch localisation and translation
  • Produce content that’s interesting and relevant for each country

The World Service ticks all these boxes. The BBC is influential and large enough to reach over 190 million listeners across the world. It’s a scale almost no other broadcaster can imagine and it’s seriously impressive stuff.

In turn, as journalist Mary Dejevsky has argued, this makes it an excellent tool for influencing how millions of people around the world think of us. This view was backed up by former BBC chief Lord Hall, who said there was an ‘exceptionally high correlation between places where people are aware of the BBC and places where people think positively about the UK’.

In other words, the BBC is an invaluable asset to the nation.

That’s the sort of PR you want.

BBC PR needed for World Service

Unfortunately, over 20% of Britons haven’t heard of the World Service, and a third who have are neutral about it. This implies that most people don’t understand its purpose.

It doesn’t help that the service got off to a poor start. Before the first programme in 1932, Director-General John Reith said, ‘don’t expect too much in the early days; for some time […] the programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.’

Revitalising the World Service and advertising its influence domestically would be an easy PR win for the BBC.

It would:

  • Show how the BBC is a uniquely national and international organisation. ITV and Sky News don’t have the reach to produce content in Amharic and Igbo
  • Domestic media outlets don’t enhance our reputation abroad. Playing up its political importance would prove the BBC is worth the licence fee
  • It’s a counterpoint to the BBC’s lack of diversity mentioned earlier, helping it connect with Britons from a wider range of backgrounds.

The World Service is already a major PR coup for the BBC abroad, a success no other UK broadcaster can replicate. Publicising it more domestically could be the BBC public relations ace-in-the-hole. All they have to do is set the PR wheels in motion.

Key lesson: recognise when you’re letting an easy PR win go to waste.

Find out more about International PR. Read: Expanding your business horizons with International PR

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