If you’re a CEO and your public relations team recommends you participate in a reality show called Undercover Boss, read this first.
If you’ve not seen it, the show originated in Great Britain. It’s U.S.-counterpart airs on CBS and has attracted participation from the leadership of Seven Eleven, Roto-Rooter, 1-800 Flowers, Waste Management and other names you know. It originally aired right after the Superbowl® in February, pulling in nearly 39 million viewers. Since then, it’s remained a strong performer and was renewed for a second season.
Here’s the formula: The CEO disguises his identity and works on the front lines of his company for one week. The employees with whom he interacts are encouraged to open up in their evaluations of the company and the undercover boss’ performance. Reality television has trained Americans well, as the show dishes up plenty of tension and drama.
The show promotes itself as giving CEOs a deeper appreciation for their employees’ hard work while providing valuable information to improve their companies. At the end of each episode, the boss reveals his true identity to the employees he’s worked alongside, presents them with gifts for under-appreciated performance, and discusses what he’s learned to improve the company.
Why any public relations professional would let his client participate in this show is beyond me. The brand development value is questionable at best. The CEOs featured on the show are presented as fully human, which can be useful. However, they also are presented as leaders who are dangerously out of touch with their businesses, and in some cases, indecisive and governed by emotion.
Of course, what you see of these CEOs is the result of artful and intentional editing. The producers of any reality show want to draw viewers in through manipulation of human emotion. Which amplifies the question, “Why would a PR professional allow his CEO to do this?”
There are three basic questions you should ask yourself before participating in any media relations opportunity. They apply equally well to trade media, business media, your daily newspaper or Undercover Boss.
- How does this opportunity advance the brand? :: If you can’t answer this one clearly, you can probably stop here.
- What are the risks? :: What if it goes poorly and backfires on the brand? It can happen, because you don’t control the end product. If the potential upside for the brand is sufficiently compelling, then higher risks can be tolerated.
- What are the editorial objectives of the media outlet? :: Do your research. Understand how the media outlet drives viewers, readers or listeners. Knowing this will help you understand their motives, and by extension, how they’re likely to portray you. It’s also the cornerstone of good media relations.
In the case of Undercover Boss, there are infinitely more professional ways to accomplish everything the show proposes to offer, with infinitely less risk.
For instance, if you want to see the business from the vantage point of the people who make it work, go spend time with them. Ask questions. Work beside them. Visit regularly. You do not need to lie about your identity. They’ll tell you what you most of what you need to know, and you’ll see the rest with your own eyes.
Worried that some of your managers are jerks who are treating employees or customers poorly? Enlist mystery shoppers, hire confederate employees or conduct 360-degree reviews.
Want to know if your customers have negative perceptions of your brand? Conduct professional market research. Even online surveys produced internally can be quite useful. They produce credible, reliable, and actionable data. A week as an undercover boss does not.
Reality television is the wrong setting for a company that wants to connect with its customers and employees in honest, unvarnished conversations. It’s manipulative, agenda-driven and sensational.
What’s your opinion of reality television as a public relations tactic?