Handling Ross/Brand in an open way

posted by Steve Bowbrick

How should the BBC have handled this incident? As your semi-official BBC openness monitor I think it appropriate that I chip in with some practical tips for dealing with maverick multi-million pound talent.

1. Let people listen to the show: Some people think the Daily Mail waited nearly a week to go large on the Ross/Brand story because by then the show had been removed from iPlayer. They think The Mail did this because the prank calls sound worse when read from a transcript than they do in their original context—giving The Mail greater control over the story. Putting the show up in a prominent place from day one and allowing it to stay up beyond the seven-day window would have neutralised that particular risk.

2. Respond openly and directly: using a blog, of course. This begins to seem like such basic stuff that I’m genuinely surprised this wasn’t done right. I’m pretty sure that if this had been Exxon or Philips or GSK a crisis response blog would have been live within ten minutes of the first complaint.

The BBC should keep such a blog live at all times just in case: it could be called something like ‘BBC Responds’. It should have an editor and all the managers involved should have author privileges (and it should be easy to assign new authors as the story develops). There’s an excellent precedent for using a blog in this way at the BBC News editors’ blog.

Like any news organisation, the BBC knew about The Mail’s story the night before it came out. Imagine how different this whole episode would have been if something as simple as this had been put up on a blog that evening:

The Daily Mail is running a story tomorrow about last week’s Russell Brand show. They’re focusing on recordings of prank calls made to actor Andrew Sachs’ answerphone. We’ve just spoken to the producers and, as of half an hour ago, the programme had received two complaints from listeners about the item. We’ll keep an eye on this story.

3. Use the blog properly. All the risks here flow from failure to communicate honestly with the people who care: refusal to provide a spokesperson, hesitation to find out what happened, complacency about the outcome, senior management silence. The risks produced by a quick response or a slightly too-frank blog post will always be dwarfed by the risks of doing nothing. Pasting up a press release or an official statement from the DG won’t do either. Requiring the managers who authorised the broadcast to explain themselves online in an informal way would.

4. Don’t listen to the lawyers. Lawyers who are (I’m guessing here) advising the BBC that a quick and honest response to this crisis would present risks should be told to shut up. If Davie had been live with a one paragraph blog post as soon as the Mail story broke, the BBC would have retained control of the story and avoided handing an already hostile press another win.

Better yet, if Ross and Brand had been required to explain themselves, to enter a dialogue with listeners, right there on the blog, we’d have understood how the gaffe occurred and they’d have more quickly understood the scale and meaning of the public’s objections.

(I made a couple of small changes and added paragraphs five and six to this entry this morning, 30 October, after I’d learnt that the item on the Russell Brand show had received two complaints from listeners before the Daily Mail story).


Comments so far.

  1. Posted by Terence Eden on Wednesday 29th October

    Having listened to it over on Phreadz, I completely agree with you.

    I don’t believe for a second that anyone who listened to that could find it so offensive. Puerile, derivative, obnoxious, perhaps – but that’s the Russell Brand show.

    More importantly – the BBC shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for itself and point out the hypocrisy at The Mail. I know – from reading Street of Shame in Private Eye – that the media doesn’t like to feed on its own. But when faced with an attack like this, they shouldn’t be afraid of calling their attacker out.

  2. Posted by Russ on Thursday 30th October

    ‘The risks produced by a quick response or a slightly too-frank blog post will always be dwarfed by the risks of doing nothing.’

    Always? I’m not so sure. I can think of many quick or too frank responses that would later be regretted.

  3. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Thursday 30th October

    Russ. Yes, always. Could an honest but too hasty early response to this episode *possibly* have made this story worse?

  4. Posted by Louise on Thursday 30th October

    I think a brief rapid response on a blog would have been a great idea – but does only reach a limited number of people in its native format so should have been pointed to wherever people might complain online or look for the story (homepage, news etc.).

    A follow up with Ross and Brand speaking directly on the blog would similarly have been very powerful and hopefully reduced the number of people complaining.

    In this particular case I have a little niggle over your points 1. and 4. The woman in question seems to have implied on the Sun interview I saw on the news last night that words used about her could have been construed as slander, and as such, the BBC would have been in a difficult position continuing to publish the show – and therefore perpetuating the slander – if it might be the case. I would want to listen to a lawyer on that one (but I imagine there could have been a way of presenting it with caveats e.g. with warnings, pointing out that the BBC does not endorse the views etc etc.).

  5. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Thursday 30th October

    The BBC needs to be less cautious here. If the show was put up in a prominent place on the homepage it could have been very quickly removed if it had been judged to be slanderous. Meanwhile, of course, it’s all over YouTube et al for the world to hear…

    Likewise, Davie, Douglas and other senior management are all holed up in their Langham Place bunkers precisely because of this kind of hyper-cautious legal advice – making things worse with every additional hour of silcence…

  6. Posted by Russ on Thursday 30th October

    Hi Steve,

    I suppose my concern is that hasty responses often contain factual errors. For example – the tragic Stockwell tube shooting. I recall the early briefings to the press were error-plagued.

    I think there is nothing wrong with issuing an interim factually-correct statement ‘we’re looking into this’, but making claims before the facts are fully known can be a mistake.

    Even in this seemingly open and shut case there could be important facts which are unknown to us.

    But all things being said, you are probably right when it comes to this particular case.

    Take care,


  7. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Thursday 30th October

    But Russ, you’re using the old language: the language of statements and releases and schedules – which is exactly what’s caused this crisis for the BBC. It’s a kind of paralysis. The paradox is that parts of the BBC already handle this very well: look at the way stories are tracked and responded to on Nick Reynolds’ BBC Internet blog or the News editors’ blog. It’s informal, spontaneous and short-circuits the paralysis (you also seem to be mixing up the Metropolitan Police and the BBC: nobody died here!).

  8. Posted by Russ on Thursday 30th October

    It’s the lawyer in me…it still comes out occasionally!!

  9. Posted by Paul Murphy on Thursday 30th October

    Where did you get your figure of 2 complaints before the Mail ran the story from? I’m not disputing your numbers but the news reports I’m still hearing persist with the idea that the original pre-Mail complaints were at least in tehir hundreds if not thousands.

  10. Posted by Chris on Thursday 30th October

    Paul – the figure of 2 complaints has been widely publicised, even the BBC themselves mention it here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7698206.stm

  11. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Thursday 30th October

    Love to see those complaints plotted onto a timeline…

  12. Posted by Russ on Thursday 30th October

    It’s like voting: I’m complaining early and often!

  13. Posted by Roo Reynolds on Thursday 30th October

    “Love to see those complaints plotted onto a timeline…”

    Me too. I wonder if the (cumulative) number of complaints about a particular issue are published somewhere?

  14. Posted by Roo Reynolds on Thursday 30th October

    Best I’ve found so far: the timeline at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7694989.stm

  15. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Thursday 30th October

    Doesn’t it sound like the perfect opportunity for a bit of open linked data?

  16. Posted by Jemima Kiss on Friday 31st October

    If Ofcom was also as open as it should be, it would release a feed from the complaints database that could be plotted on that very graph. Likewise complaints to the BBC itself – assuming complaints *are* logged in a database and not just on Post-It Notes.

  17. Posted by Nick Reynolds (BBC) on Sunday 2nd November

    There are some good ideas here, which I obviously agree with.

    But I’m not sure they would have worked in this case.

    This story was broken by and led by The Mail. There was nothing about it on blogs before they picked it up.

    If you have a problem you have to go to the source and try and fix it there.

    On a blog you can enter into a dialogue through comments easily. It’s much harder to do that with a national newspaper.

    I would have apologised earlier and through a full page statement in the Mail and on its website – and then done any TV interviews.

    The other problem was that Brand’s first apology, where he attacked the Mail, came over as insincere and just made things worse. If he’d done this on a blog it would have been just as bad, if not worse.

    The fundamental problem was the message, not the medium!

    My personal views obviously)

  18. Posted by Bowblog: Brand and Ross are innocent on Sunday 2nd November

    [...] enemies at The Mail to control the story for days. But I’ve written about all that over at Common Platform. Have I got this wrong? Should the BBC really have caved in so cravenly? Could Thompson not have [...]

  19. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Monday 3rd November

    I know I’m being naive about the institutional issues but I do disagree:

    * the severity of the problem actually supports my argument: the more severe the problem, the more openness and spontaneity will help – think Cadbury’s and the poisonous chocolate frogs and dozens of other major corporate nightmares. It’s not about statements and apologies, it’s about simple, informal messages from informed voices (like yourself).

  20. Posted by Daniel Weir on Wednesday 5th November

    My comments have gone ! Was I too troublesome in what I said . . . I’m confused.

    DW x

  21. Posted by Ross/Brand - how not to let a molehill become a mountain (version 2,137) | Greyhead.co.uk on Tuesday 18th November

    [...] BBC Common Platform: Handling Ross/Brand in an open way [...]

  22. Posted by Edmund O'Connell on Tuesday 25th November

    It is obvious that the BBC as an organisation has totally underestimated the level of outrage that is being felt at the decision to reinstate Jonathon Ross. Blaming the Daily Mail for reporting on systematic failures at the BBC misses the point, the public are tired of financing an organisation that does not have the slightest interest in our views.

    I for one am boycotting the BBC license fee and will continue to do so until appropriate action has been taken. I invite all of you to join me.

  23. Posted by Alec on Monday 26th January

    I hear the decision not to run the DEC Gaza appeal has attracted 10,000 complaints already. Do you think we can look forward to a similar handling of those responsible?

  24. Posted by electric cigarette on Thursday 5th May

    http://www.prlog.org/10650542-quit-smoking-cigarette-with-ecigarette-trial-starter-kit.html Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time :-)

Leave a reply