Death, PR and fake television

Do campaigners really need a shocking death to gain public attention for their cause? 

Apparently, campaign groups supported broadcasting the death of Malcolm Pointon’s who had suffered for many years with Alzheimer’s – “claiming it will raise awareness for the disease.”

This was the same argument behind the Big Donor Show reality programme (where a dying woman will choose a donor for one of her kidneys), a couple of months ago.

Both have turned out to have been “economical with the truth” – but gained substantial publicity about the cause.

Adrian Monck states:

I would guess that Watson (the film maker) thinks that Alzheimers is important, that the only way to get attention for the story was through a gimmick (death on camera), and that everyone concerned thought the film’s message about the disease and its consequences more important than the death itself. But once again it is the selling of a film that seems to mislead.

Isn’t it more shocking that extreme sensationalism is required to get attention for any serious issue today?  But, don’t such tactics only serve to increase the barrier to coverage further – and in turn cease to be effective?

I find the secondary outrage over “faking” the death bizarre.  Artifice is inherent in producing any television programme.  Scripts are edited, interviewers are coached, scenes are set and stories are framed to convey a particular impression.  I would think the public today are sufficiently media savvy to recognise where editing is taking place rather than actual filming.  Hasn’t 24 hour streaming of Big Brother increased knowledge of content manipulation in the edited shows?

Of course, we expect honesty in respect of areas like competitions, where trust is important (indeed, I believe covered by law). 

But does it matter whether the final images of Mr Pointon were of his actual death or slipping into a final coma?  Is that what it took to gain coverage of the story?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

4 thoughts on “Death, PR and fake television”

  1. Heather, is this not an extension of scream marketing. In an era when we are bombarded with content, the marketer has to become more extreme to get past the clutter. It is costly. But is it effective?

    In the short term it is effective in getting publicity (an excuse for the chattering classes to polish their nails in public) but, as we have seen, it exposes the less than appealing value systems of the organisation’s involved. Experience shows that, in the long term the biter is bit.

    Five years ago, our colleagues (yes, this one sits in the lap of PR managers – as does all hype and scam) in the banking industry move their value systems from being concerned with the proprietary of keeping customer money safe, and the relationship confidential to insecure online systems and endless promotions of their own homogenised, cellophane packaged services and deals with third parties. They doorstepped their customers and gave their details to Tom Dick and Harry and every commission insurance agent they could find. Customer expectations (if you like the bank’s reputation), that is the value systems customers believed were important to them, were betrayed.

    Now, at every opportunity customers have a go at the banks. They move accounts, use competitors products, take them to court and let governments pass laws to make bankers’ life ever more proscribed.

    What does this presage for the TV companies – a similar response? It will not come from less viewers for sensational programmes in the short term but will come from a range of responses as ordinary people walk away from the big programmers and channels. I would hazard a guess that TV programmes will be ripped and made available on web sites and more than a few people and institutions will turn a blind eye. I guess that advertising will be less effective and the will to help an industry already suffering from the desertion of revenues to online properties will evaporate.

    What we learn from this is that the PR industry has to be tough enough to say no to the scream marketers.

    They also have to walk away from marketing and deal in values.

    PR’s job is not some spurious version of ROI. Without values (and managed corporate value systems) there is, eventually, no return on investment or assets.

    All that aside, if the TV programme was really worth viewer’s time, Social Media will spread the word far better than lies. If its not worth the time, it will either be ignored or panned.

    And that goes for every press release on earth. If the story is thin, junk it.

    Perhaps this also points to how we evaluate PR. It may be more about maintaining the value of expectations than anything else.

  2. We’re only a step away from a real one….

    TV is just keeps falling lower and lower….just when you imagine it’s reached the bottom the bottom gets redefined

  3. Richard – I actually love television, but agree with you about the declining standards and even I find myself watching less and engaging with online more.

    David – I agree that television promotion seems to be screaming for attention at all costs and this is at the expense of genuine positive values with which the public may actually identify. As Adrian Monck updated, it seems such a shame that Mrs Pointon is the person bitten here, despite her best intentions over the issues regarding her husband’s illness and death.

    Your example of the banking industry is spot on – like doctors and other people who had real respect and influence, the pursuit of bling has betrayed trust and the influence that they had.

    It is so depressing to see the BBC in particular give away the trust it had with the British public. We will increasingly turn online to people who match out values – at the expense of that shared experience that the best national television provided.

    I would love to think that the PR industry would stand up to the screaming – but I’m sure there will be a lot more examples of bad practice before anyone gets the message. And by then, will PR have any value itself?

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