Phone-in crisis needs more than a new code to restore public confidence

Competitions are one of the tactics in the promotional toolkit used by public relations practitioners – and as with any other activity, it is vital to understand the legal framework and appropriate codes of practice.

So I’ve been trying to get my head around the current issue regarding premium rate phone-in competitions. 

Where does regulation of such competitions fall?  Well firstly, they are not considered to be gambling or a lottery – something questioned recently.   Apparently, the defining factor is that such competitions involves an element of skill – although questions such as Where is the Lake District? A) England, B) Northern Ireland, C) Scotland asked by are hardly at level.

The TV watchdog, can take action if viewers are being misled.  Last September it upheld complaints against Quizmania (one of those ridiculour late night quizzes run by ITV Play).  However, its ruling that it was not reasonable to have answers of rawl plugs and a balaclava as items typically found in a woman’s handbag – did not seem in result in any sanctions.

(MP for Stockport) asked the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to reclassify television phone-in quizzes as lotteries last October. 

However, the , due to come into force in September 2007, will introduce a new definition of a lottery and a complex lottery.  Neverthless, the government (which gains tax income from such calls) says:

Ultimately only the courts will be able to decide whether or not certain television phone-in quizzes constitute lotteries under the new Act. However, the is currently consulting on its view that some television quizzes would need to change the way that they are currently operated to ensure that they comply with the new rules.

are covered in the Lotteries and Amusements Act 1976 and the code (which has no mention of phone-in quizzes specifically).  Clearly there could be a criminal case of with claims that Five faked phone-in winners to encourage more callers.

As the crisis extends beyond competitions into programmes where viewers simply cast votes (such as  or ) – it appears – the premium phone line regulator – is in charge of restoring public confidence. 

In terms of public trust, this crisis is similar to the recent issue.  Indeed, like most modern crisis there are also a large number of organisations involved – in this case, the company handling the phone calls (eg ), the production company (eg ) and the broadcaster (eg ).

This highlights the importance of supplier relationships, as we’ve seen with working conditions in factories in the fashion industry.  It is clearly increasingly important for public relations to recognise the impact on corporate reputation of such partnerships.

As in the earlier it appears only the broadcasters, which have the greatest public reputational risk, seems to demonstrate pro-active crisis management.  Indeed, reports some classic mud-slinging between Eckoh and (run by Jonathan Ross’s sister-in-law Amanda) in the situation.

The plans from Icstis to restore public confidence include a licensing regime to make it clearer who is responsible for fair practice, better monitoring and publication of clearer rules.

What might be hard for consumers to understand is how this will make a difference?  There is an appearance of a real lack of interest in the public compared to easy income generation.  The money involved is quite staggering – ITV alone made more than £100m from premium rate phone lines and interactive programmes in 2006 (according to a helpful Q&A from the  – which doesn’t identify its own income from such sources – although  raised £1.5m for charity). 

I’m reminded of the scandal, where the company apparently had all the right values, policies and practices in place – indeed it was named one of Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America, the year before it crashed.   

Enron had a 65-page “” – but understanding the legal framework and codes of practice are only one part of ethical behaviour (whether in public relations or more generally).  It is the commitment to act fairly and put such values ahead of short-term income that really counts.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.