TV DRAMA: DRAMATIC EFFECT

TV dramas are a great way to publicise a cause. But how easy is it to get your issues on air, and can you ensure they are portrayed accurately? Tamsin Kingswell reports

When Alma on Coronation Street died of cervical cancer last year, it encouraged a lot of women to go for check-ups, bumping up the figures by more than half in some regions. TV drama, as this example showed, can provide a uniquely powerful opportunity to highlight a cause, often doing more in a few minutes than months of hard work and expensive advertising.

"TV programmes, in particular soaps, are really valuable for getting the message across. Soaps create more calls and more interest than any other media," says Lynne Harne, press officer of the Rape Crisis Federation.

Little surprise, then, that the makers of TV dramas are inundated with requests from charities for coverage. But getting through to the programme makers, and then getting the message aired accurately, can present particular challenges.

Although television production companies are generally sympathetic to charities' requests, the issues are not their primary concern, however central they might be to a charity's heart. Zoe Cartell, press officer of Coronation Street, explains: "You have to remember that Coronation Street is first and foremost a drama and not an information point. That said, we appreciate it is a powerful medium and we work closely with charities when we touch on subjects."

And however much advertising might surround a particular drama, the programme makers still have to maintain an editorial independence.

Charities also cannot depend on the worthiness of their cause to guarantee airtime. Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the Media Trust, an organisation set up to help charities maximise their media exposure, says that programme makers have to be careful with their use of charity ideas because, fundamentally, it is "product placement".

And nor can a charity, should it manage to gain the attention of the producers, dictate how an issue should be treated. For all its success in raising awareness, the Coronation Street cancer story line prompted a lot of criticism for the speed of Alma's death.

"Although soaps can dramatise more than they should, it was still a good thing in the long run because it helped raise the profile of this form of cancer, and encouraged more women to go and get checked up," says Kirsty Warwick, press officer of Macmillan Cancer Relief. "We are realistic about soaps. After all, they are first and foremost a drama."

Occasionally, the coverage you get can do more harm than good, as Victim Support found when it was featured in the comedy drama Linda Green (see Case Study, p18). A lot of damage can be done by a badly handled or misinformed script. So any charities' chief concern with TV programmes should be that the coverage given is accurate.

"Take a typical story line in a soap. It could be around 90 seconds so the words chosen are really important. Our primary concern is that an issue such as HIV is sensitively handled and the facts are correct," says Mark Graver of the Terence Higgins Trust. Because of a long-standing relationship between the charity and EastEnders since the inclusion of the HIV-positive character Mark Fowler, Graver says the soap has consistently handled the issue well.

Many charities, however, find they have no direct control over fictional representations of their particular issue. Organisations are dependent on the goodwill of the programme makers, in whose hands all the power lies. Therefore, charities need to become skillful negotiators.

"Generally the amount of control you have is limited. But that doesn't mean you can't try to negotiate, and there are some things that you need to be firm about," says Sarah Miller, spokesperson at the Salvation Army. "For example, at the Salvation Army, we are often asked to put on bonnets whereas now our volunteers are more likely to be dressed in fleeces. In terms of appearance, we want them to get things right. We are still constantly trying to move away from the archaic image of the organisation."

In general, production companies want to get it right, too, especially when the subject is a sensitive one. Sarah Nelson, PR manager at the Samaritans, has found that negotiation and offering advice can be hugely effective. "In the recent episode of EastEnders where Kat tried to commit suicide, we advised the producers not to show the precise way she cut her wrists," she says. "They were going to show this in a lot more detail but we explained that the media has a massive influence and that it is much better not to show the precise methods by which people can take their lives."

The Samaritans goes as far as issuing a Media Guidelines book to help programme makers be responsible when portraying suicide. "The media certainly doesn't want the responsibility of copycat suicides laid at their door and this can help," Nelson adds.

So is it worth cold calling television production companies with ideas? It very much depends on the production. Liz Hyder, press officer at EastEnders, says: "We don't encourage charities to pitch ideas to us because we would just be inundated and we have to be seen to maintain impartiality."

But Coronation Street's Cartell disagrees. "It is always worth charities writing to the producer to bring their attention to a particular subject. It's an initiative that we encourage and we've touched on a number of subjects ranging from rape to domestic abuse. Researchers always check with charities. For example, for a recent internet paedophile story line we worked closely with Kidscape."

Angela Carter, story researcher of The Bill, says that appropriate issues are always considered. "We are always looking for good story ideas and we like to be as topical as we can. If a charity wanted to approach me with a campaign that we could use for a story line, particularly if it has a police element, I'd be very pleased," she says.

At Channel 4 there is a programme support department which looks at scripts, identifies up-and-coming issues and sources relevant helplines for voice overs and web sites at the end of programmes.

Charities, however, need to be careful not to expect too much. "Providing a helpline every episode would turn a drama into a public service documentary and dissipate the impact when support is really needed," says Chris Latus, project manager of phone services programme support at Channel 4.

She believes that charities can be proactive in securing support, but adds: "This would normally be linked with a high-profile campaign or newsworthy issue such as meningitis or the recent announcement of a sexually transmitted disease story line to be included in Hollyoaks."

She adds, however, that approaches to Channel 4 should always be made by national charities, not local ones.

The Media Trust's Diehl, who has organised seminars on this subject, says that charities must be subtle in their approach. "The first thing charities need to do is be aware of who they're targeting, so they need to watch these programmes. Then they have to think of unusual angles that might attract the researcher," she says.

"The best way to get your ideas on screen is to work on developing personal relationships with the programme makers, what I call a 'buddy buddy' approach."

She adds that charities also need to be patient as TV production companies do not like being constantly pestered to include story lines. "It takes a long time for these story lines to come through so there's no point trying to rush it."

Channel 4's Latus agrees: "Past experience has shown that you need to be working at least a year ahead and be aware not only of the current content in a soap but also of the issues that may be of concern to the target audience. There no point Help the Aged putting ideas to Hollyoaks."

Diehl's philosophy certainly seems to have been put in to practice by the Salvation Army, and with impressive results. Last year, its visibility on TV and radio went up 40 per cent, averaging between two and three appearances a week.

Miller puts this down to the desire to communicate all the time. "We make sure we cultivate every single opportunity, keeping ourselves in our key media contacts' minds and always working towards a greater awareness. The day-to-day challenge is to make the most of what comes our way. Of course, there's always room for improvement and we aim to be much more proactive, coming up with feature ideas," she says.

So while it's not often possible to pitch stories, not least because of limited time and resources, making the most of a story once it is on the air is just common sense. "We are always reactive to good story lines in soaps. The recent EastEnders story line when Mark Fowler had his visa turned down when trying to emigrate to the US was providential since we've recently launched a campaign to overturn the travel ban for people with HIV," says Terence Higgins' Graver.

It is also worth charities not forgetting to send out information to the leading TV and radio production companies as a point of reference.

Diehl says: "A lot of charity awareness information is focused on news media and it is important not to forget entertainment. Don't bombard them, but include them in annual information pack mail-outs or write to them occasionally. It is easy for a press office to overlook this sector and it's a simple thing to increase awareness by including them in information mail-outs."

Most charities agree that, like so many things, the heart of all successful media negotiations lies with the personal touch. Develop good relationships with TV and radio companies and they will listen to you. "You will only alienate people if you try to bully them into storylines. We aim to influence - we wouldn't even think of coercion. That's not the way to forge a good relationship," says Nelson.

Being constantly available helps too, as most TV companies work on stiff time schedules and don't have time to spare. When soaps or TV dramas are thinking about running a Salvation Army character, representatives from the charity are always available for a meeting. "We talk them through about who we are, our events during the year and the opportunities to link up with local organisations. What we were trying to do is make their lives as easy as possible but without ramming the issues down their throats," explains Miller.

Ultimately, media relations are very much in the hands of the charity's press relations department and, while building contacts within the industry can be a slow and sometimes painful process, the rewards are huge. Diehl explains: "This is a fantastic opportunity for charities that have stories to tell, as long as they remember it's a long process.

If you approach this subtly and make sure you are seen as helping rather than dictating, then it is possible to produce the best result for everyone."

CASE STUDY: MACMILLAN TEAMS UP WITH GRANGE HILL

Grange Hill's cancer story line in the 25th series, which started on CBBC on BBC 1 in January, has proved a useful springboard for Macmillan Cancer Relief's Cancer Talk Week beginning 4 March. Recent story lines have included Amy's mother being diagnosed with cancer and Matt discovering he had testicular cancer.

Macmillan's new programme for primary and secondary schools has been put together to increase the awareness of cancer, with the intention of preparing children to understand the impact the disease can have. Education packs and web sites - www.class-action.org.uk and www.whybother.org.uk - will provide teachers and parents with more information and schools are being encouraged to take part in Cancer Talk Week.

Angela Ashford, publicist of Grange Hill, explains: "We have been contacted by charities many times over the years, but because we have been working so far ahead, we have usually already recorded everything. The charities who have been in touch often want us to tie in with particular dates or just want us to drop in a bit about them at a time of particular promotion. Some also want us to do a story line on a subject that we have already been covering in-depth."

Murray Lindo, head of campaigns at Macmillan, says: "The link-up with Grange Hill for our new schools awareness programme was a natural fit.

Macmillan had already been advising the programme makers last year when the scripts were being written and filming took place.

"The cancer story line gave a fictitious account of what Cancer Talk is trying to tackle in real life - encouraging children to talk about cancer and the different ways in which they can be affected by the disease.

The method of working together was usually via the phone or email and was particularly important at the script writing stage so that the facts could be written in accurately. "With the Macmillan nurse, we needed to know the kind of questions people ask when someone they are caring for is going to die in order for us to incorporate this information into the script. We also needed to know about the various stages of the disease and what would be a feasible and accurate way of portraying it without it appearing like a documentary," says Ashford.

Lindo has been delighted with the results: "There is no doubt that children, like adults, rely heavily on the media for information about cancer and often receive very mixed messages. Grange Hill is helping children to navigate this difficult area in a way that provides a model for other dramas to follow."

CASE STUDY: LINDA GREEN MAKES A CRISIS OUT OF A DRAMA

By Paul Fawcett,

How do you fancy having a prime-time, one-hour BBC drama, starring two household names and backed up by a major advertising campaign to highlight your charity's work? Sounds like a dream come true? Think again.

Like most charities, Victim Support's PR department spends its fair share of time trying to persuade producers and soap script writers to promote our agenda. I suspect, like anyone else, we rarely succeed. But we do occasionally get our posters plastered all over sets or our helpline number featured after crime-related episodes. So, despite all that hard work, it came as a bit of a surprise to discover in December that, according to the Daily Mail's TV page, the BBC's Linda Green was going to feature a "Victim support officer" after the lead character's home was burgled.

Finding out we were going to be part of such a high-profile series might have been great news, especially as our person was being played by a very popular actress, Pam Ferris. But there were signs of trouble in the paper's review that some of the character's antics didn't sound like us at all.

Two hours of phone calls later and we'd been promised, and then refused, a preview tape of the programme and finally reassured by the producer that we had nothing to worry about.

Victim Support wasn't even mentioned by name, we were told; it was just a "mad" character who was "acting off her own back".

Suffice to say this wasn't true. We were mentioned by name several times (even an ID card was shown on screen) and the character was an interfering drunk who broke just about every rule in the book. Not only did it undermine our reputation and credibility - who would want to turn for help to an organisation that pinches your house keys and interrogates all your friends - but it was insulting to the 13,000 volunteers who undergo heavy training and drag out in all weathers, in their own time, to help people.

The phones started ringing early the next morning. Understandably, we had a major response from our members and volunteers - many were deeply offended or angry. Several were calling for an instant on-air apology, an understandable view, but in reality just not something broadcasters do.

It also materialised that the production company had turned to our colleagues in Manchester months before as part of their research. But despite their best efforts to put the programme makers in the picture, they clearly hadn't taken much notice of the facts.

Since then we've made official complaints to the BBC and the Broadcasting Standards Commission. Our comments largely fell outside the remit of the Commission and so were rejected, and the BBC flatly refused to accept that they had done anything wrong.

It argued that it has a right and responsibility to be editorially independent (fair enough) and that it was comedy, so nobody would take it seriously.

Try telling that to our volunteers. For a while we thought we had them on the run as they had clearly thought that "Victim Support" was just a generic term (think vacuum cleaner) rather than a specific named organisation such as Hoover, but this was to no avail.

We've had legal advice - the solictors have been fantastic, and they did it as a favour - but, at the end of the day, the law and the cost of legal action, were not on our side. Had we had the resources of a commercial organisation we would undoubtedly have tried to sue, but it's something we simply can't afford.

Four months down the line you might be tempted to think where's the harm?

Well once again it's not that simple.

Making a series of one-hour comedy dramas does't come cheap. So the world of digital television and international sales beckons. In January, we found out that UK Gold was going to show the series again. Not only that, but the problem episode was going out in European Victims Week and on the day we were launching our biggest campaign for victims' rights in five years.

It's still too early to know what the full impact will be, but it has undoubtedly been very bad for morale - especially for colleagues out in the field.

Our campaign received good coverage and hopefully will have helped show up the gaping chasm between Linda Green's version of Victim Support and reality. We've had a recent spate of reports of distraction burglary in our name - people tricking their way into homes to steal things by pretending to be us. Whether or not that's a result of people seeing the programme we'll probably never know. But it's got us worried nonetheless. If even one victim of crime sits at home thinking there's nowhere to turn for help "because Victim Support is a joke" then, in many respects, the damage is done.

Paul Fawcett is the head of communications at Victim Support.

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