Interview: Kim Hamilton

The chief executive of the animal charity Blue Cross tells Ploy Radford how the organisation took part in a Channel 4 reality show to gain exposure to millions of viewers

Kim Hamilton
Kim Hamilton

The Blue Cross became the first charity to be featured in Channel 4's Undercover Boss when Kim Hamilton, its chief executive, pretended to be a volunteer in an episode in July.

The TV production company Studio Lambert invited the animal welfare charity to take part in the series, in which bosses assume false identities to experience life on the front line.

This raised the prospect of exposure to millions of viewers but also posed a potential risk to the charity's reputation if the reality TV show format portrayed it in a bad light.

Hamilton admits she was concerned the film crew might find a "skeleton in the closet". But she adds: "We have strong morals, so I thought the risk of them unearthing something like that was low."

Hamilton's faith was tested because Blue Cross had little say in the programme's editorial direction. Because of the secretive nature of the show, even the charity's press team was mostly unaware of what was taking place.

Studio Lambert decided what job Hamilton would do, which staff they wanted to film and where they wanted to film. The few charity staff that were in on the secret advised the production company on which employees and locations might work best, but Studio Lambert had the final say.

Hamilton pretended to be a person called Lesley Harvey, who was supposedly being filmed for a programme called Workplace Docs. Filming took place on eight separate days over three weeks. Hamilton was made unrecognisable by the use of hair dye, glasses and make-up.

Another problem occurred when Studio Lambert said it wanted Hamilton to drive the ambulance. "The ambulance crew wouldn't let me do it until they saw my licence," says Hamilton. Steve Goody, the Blue Cross's director of external affairs, had to vouch for 'Lesley's' ability to drive.

"They let us see the uncut version to check for inaccuracies and changed things we weren't happy with, which they weren't legally obliged to do," says Hamilton.

The charity successfully requested the production company change a voiceover that implied Hamilton had got rid of all the directors when she joined. This was based on a comment by Hamilton, but in fact she had replaced only some directors. "It sounded quite harsh and gave the wrong impression," Hamilton says.

Laura Sleight, head of media relations, was the only member of the press team present during filming. She provided administrative support and encouraged staff to relax in front of the cameras.

Sleight says filming created a huge amount of work behind the scenes and advises charities to think carefully about entering into such arrangements with TV companies. Hamilton says: "The experience has been positive and I would heartily recommend it to any chief executive."

The programme certainly helped to raise the charity's profile: it was watched by 2.3 million people and the Blue Cross website attracted 35,000 visits, twice the average, during the week the programme went out.

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