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).