With the ABC and BBC both forced to apologise, how does brand management for public broadcasters differ?

Public service broadcasters take up a unique position within the media landscape. With strict editorial guidelines and non-commercial interests, the BBC and ABC have been two of the most trusted brands in and outside media for some time. But, will the recent lapses have a longer term impact on the brands than commercial competitors? Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan investigates.

The release of the Dyson Report in the UK last month has thrown the public reputation of the BBC, and former journalist Martin Bashir, up in the air.

25-years-ago, the BBC’s flagship investigative programme, Panorama, aired an exclusive and revealing interview with the late Princess Diana (Spencer), in which several revelations proved to be a historic scoop for the broadcaster.

What was already controversial at the time, was recently confirmed to be more damaging than originally thought, with independent inquiry head Lord Dyson finding that the BBC had covered up “deceitful behaviour”, which included fabricating documents, and deceiving the Princess, in order to land the interview.

The damning report has been widely condemned, most notably by senior figures within the sitting government and the tabloid press, of which was also well-known for its treatment of Diana, Princess of Wales.

An interview with HRH The Princess of Wales

The BBC has wholeheartedly accepted Lord Dyson’s findings, committing to a review of its editorial guidelines and the rehiring of Bashir himself. The BBC board reiterated its apologies, saying: “We accepted Lord Dyson’s findings in full and reiterate the apology we have offered to all those affected by the failings identified.”

Despite this, the UK Government, which has made no secret of its intentions to cut BBC funding, has not resisted the opportunity to reprimand the broadcaster.

Culture minister John Whittingdale told MPs that the BBC had “damaged its reputation” in the UK and abroad. Home secretary, Priti Patel added that the BBC’s “reputation has been highly damaged”, and that “lessons will have to be learned”.

Issues at home

On home shores, the ABC was last month was also forced to apologise for coverage it aired during the launch of Australia’s newest navy ship, the HMAS Supply. This included footage of a dance group, the 101 Doll Squadron, which said in a statement said they felt “unsafe” following the ABC’s “deceptive editing” in a news package showing the performance.

During the coverage, the ABC included cut-away shots showing governor-general David Hurley, the chief of navy and the chief of defence observing the performance.

The editing of the ABC’s dance coverage was called into question

In a statement correcting the coverage, the ABC admitted that the video “should not have been edited in that way and the ABC apologises to the governor-general and the chief of navy, and to viewers, for this error”.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison commented on the error, saying that the ABC should “reflect” on the coverage that was aired.

In both cases, deception is the link which prompted both apologies, with each broadcaster’s charter demanding standard which exceed the coverage in question.

Held to a higher standard?

Public service broadcasting should rightly be held to a high standard, as its purpose is to serve the entire nation, and correctly inform democracy.

Within both of these Charters, editorial guidelines also apply to each which demands due impartiality, a standard which is not enforced across news media outside of those publicly funded. Interestingly, neither of these recent examples contain hints of political partisanship, usually the driving force in public response to these broadcasters impartiality.

Following criticisms of the BBC’s coverage of the 2019 General Election, director of BBC news responded by saying “it’s hardly surprising that the BBC, which seeks to represent the nation in its entirety, is a lightning rod for political discontent”. 

A report from the University of Canberra last year found that Australians have a strong preference for impartial news (54%) rather than news that shares their point of view (19%) or challenges their viewpoint (13%). The report also found that the majority (62%) of Australian news consumers consider independent journalism to be important for society to function properly.

In another study, Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer report in February revealed that by its metrics, no media source is trusted for news and information by Australians, with traditional media experiencing a 3% decline in trust from the previous year.

However, according to a survey in February from Roy Morgan, the ABC was ranked as the eighth most trusted brand in Australia during COVID, amongst other brands including Woolworths, Coles and Bunnings. The ten top most distrusted brands included Facebook topping the list, with News Corp at number four.

The reality for the ABC and its British counterpart, is when the spotlight shines on an error, reputation and image management is the most important focus, rather than a commercial hit. The task is managing the brand and maintain trust in an age where audiences are increasingly turning away from traditional news sources, in favour of online or social media sources.

According to the above referenced research from the University of Canberra, among Australians who are not currently paying for news, when asked if they might consider paying in the next 12 months,  the majority said no (80%).

Among the rest of the media, there is almost always certainly going to be interest in covering mistakes made by the ABC.

For this event alone, according to data from Streem, there were 447 unique media items (that being online and print articles, TV and radio broadcasts), that mentioned “HMAS Supply’ and ‘dance’ or ‘dancing’ or ‘twerk’ from the date of the ship’s commissioning on 10 April through to 30 April. In particular, on 15 April, when it became apparent that the ABC had aired edited footage, there was a peak of 254 items on that day.

Do the public really care? Let’s ask the branding experts

Extensive coverage does not always translate into the public actually caring though.

In order to find out whether these two instances would have a cut-through that has been suggested in the wider media, Mumbrella approached two brand management experts to see what impact this would have.

Group strategy director at branding agency, Principals, Tim Riches thinks that both of these incidents do undermine the core reputations of both broadcasters.

Tim Riches, Principals

“I think these incidents are damaging for the brand, because they undermine the main reasons why the ABC is the most trusted media outlet in Australia, and one of Australia’s most trusted brands overall.”

Namely, both of these examples fail to carry the values of BBC and ABC reporting which has helped build their position of trust amongst Brits and Australians over the past decades.

“In the ABC and BBC cases you mention, it’s a failure of ethics in pursuit of a story. More seriously in the BBC case which involved deception with serious consequences, in a bit of a sillier way in the ABC example which seemed to be more of a click-bait exercise (although certainly misleading and disrespectful to the people involved).”

Dan Monheit, founder of HardHat and behavioural science expert believes that outside of the inner-media bubble, the decades of brand building will prevail, rather than any damage.

HardHat’s Dan Monheit

“The ABC and BBC have spent decades cultivating their images as wholesome, trusted, objective media sources. Unfortunately, against this backdrop, an isolated story or two about unconscionable conduct is unlikely to have any material or lasting impact.”

“As individuals who live and work within the media bubble, it’s easy for us to fall victim to The Spotlight Effect – a behavioural quirk that causes us to massively overestimate the level of attention other people are paying us. For the average punter, a news story about public services like the ABC or BBC acting unethically are just another brick in the wall of banks, utility companies, foreign governments, political parties and global businesses that have done (or been accused of doing) the same.”

A broadcaster misrepresenting something or someone is the number one no-go for Riches.

“So the Navy ‘twerking story’ is for the ABC a bit like safety incidents are for Qantas or stealing people’s money is for the CBA. They go to the drivers of trust in the category and therefore the core of the brand reputation.”

Though sometimes it is easy to lose track of the scale of a scandal in the midst of it, and for broadcasters that have spent decades cultivating a unique position of trust with consumers, it may take more to break that trust.

Riches continues: “In terms of recovery, as our own recent Brand Alpha research has found as we’ve focused on the concept of resilience, people can be more forgiving than the corporate reputation maxim “a lifetime to build, a moment to lose” might indicate.”

Both point to one of modern marketings most high profile examples of bad PR, Volkswagen’s (VW) ‘Dieselgate’, as an example of product prevailing over brand management.

“While the fines and compliance implications of Dieselgate have been big commercial hits to VW, the retail brand remains strong thanks to desirable product,” says Riches. 

Volkswagen’s ‘Dieselgate’ didn’t have the long term impact some expected

Monheit much more firmly stands against the idea that it takes a ‘moment to lose’ public trust.

“When Volkswagen were found guilty of emission fraud in 2015, headlines the world over proclaimed the death of the brand. The following year they sold 10.3 million new vehicles, an increase of almost 400,000 cars on the previous year. It’s unfortunate that a car company found guilty of lying to the entire world in the 2000s can still be successful, but that’s the reality of our fickle minds and limited attention spans.”

While this may be true, with brands like Qantas, VW and CBA, consumers may simply take their business elsewhere, whether they do or not is another story. For tax-funded, or license funded organisations like the ABC and BBC, consumers have a sense of ownership, which while they may turn to commercial news, does not sever ties with the broadcasters.

The ABC’s error of judgment, which as Riches highlights was the “sillier” of the two may not matter in the long term, but the calculated and deceptive nature of Bashir and his team’s actions, reported in Lord Dyson’s report’s may.

In normal service, mistakes can be forgiven, however this deliberate use of tabloid tactics, and getting found out for it, will have a much more concrete impact than most.


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