02 February 2021

The Archers - How "an everyday story of country folk” reminds us of the perils of social media


Amber Melville-Brown
Partner | US

Unlikely perhaps for a BBC radio soap opera first broadcast in 1951 to have much to say about the modern world. But billed as a “contemporary drama in a rural setting” The Archers has covered topics as diverse as the death of Princess Margaret, the World Trade Centre attacks and the COVD-19 pandemic – between the baking of cakes and the scraping of yards of course. But it was a recent social media saga which caught the ear of this media and reputation lawyer.

The characteristically dour David Archer was heard ruminating – as only a good ruminant-farmer could – with his wife Ruth about the likely damage to their new business venture caused by a negative online review. Local builder Philip Moss, employed to renovate Brookfield Barn as a new wedding venue, is charged with illegally employing former homeless young men as modern-day slaves. And their albeit unwitting involvement in the affair is now all over the Internet.

Loose lips can sink ships – negative reviews can cancel contracts

Flush from a phone call with a Bank Holiday bridegroom, Ruth announces to David that he and his fiancée no longer intend to rent the venue, having read an anonymous online review applauding the workmanship at the barn, but decrying the manner in which it was achieved: “Beautiful tiled kitchen at Brookfield Barn, built by slaves. Personally I wouldn’t set foot in it.” “So what did you tell the bridegroom?” David asks Ruth. “The truth”, she responds, “That we were taken in by Philip like a lot of people round here and that we are cooperating fully with the police investigation.”

Ruth’s honesty with the erstwhile customer may have saved her some face, but it didn’t save the contract. “I said we should have published a statement” says David. “I know, but you also wanted to pull the barn down…” Ruth retorts.

You should still shut the barn door after the horse has bolted

Pulling the barn down would have been an overreaction – but issuing, or at least preparing a reactive statement as well as communications to customers would have been a step worth taking. While Usha Franks, the local lawyer, may not have known how to deal with the matter, she would undoubtedly have referred them to Withers Media & Reputation team for some sage social media advice. While the actors who feature in The Archers may be familiar with dealing with the media, farmers and entrepreneurs are less likely to be so, but they – like anyone else – can stumble into an event likely to catapult them into the social or traditional media headlines. And they, like their celebrity alter-egos, can benefit from crisis management advice, from guidance through a social media maelstrom, and with help to restore their damaged reputation and rebuild their brand.

Preparation can save a reputation

Attacks on social media are often launched by those with a grudge – a disenchanted colleague with a boardroom complaint, or a disappointed lover with a bedroom concern, or as in this case, a former tenant given notice. Trigger points such as these should alert us to the possibility that a storm may be brewing. On learning of Philip’s arrest and knowing – albeit after the event – that he was accused of using slave labour at their farm, while they may not have anticipated Rex Fairbrother as the source of the attack, they had more than enough notice to take some preemptive measures to defend against it.

Speed is of the essence when it comes to social media – but a knee-jerk reaction can shoot you in the foot. David and Ruth should have put in place a sensible reactive plan in the event that they were drawn into the media mire with Moss. A crisis team formed of the couple and their farming children, Usha if she were also acting for them, and members of the Withers team would have drafted reactive Q&As to deal with the questions that an enquiring reporter, picking up on the social media post, might put to them; preparing a carefully drafted, well-toned reactive statement to give to a reporter should s/he come calling on short notice before a pressing press deadline, and penning the text for letters or emails, or helping with telephone call scripts for use with customers and contacts to reassure them of the farm’s bona fides and reassuring clients of their respectability.

Muck spreads

Had Rex not volunteered his culpability as the source of the post, we could have applied to court to uncover the identity of the anonymous poster. If the postings had continued or worsened, become threatening or harassing, we could have moved to remove them through complaints to the social media sites. “It started to feel wrong as soon as I hit send. That’s why I took it down so quickly” says Rex. While there is no point in crying over spilt milk in the milking parlor, with contracts already cancelled and the post being repeated elsewhere, as David points out, “Not quickly enough”. So we could have conducted an online audit to assess where the post had been republished and the extent to which additional attendant negativity had been spread.

Digging yourself out of a hole

Armed with information as to the reach of the problem, steps could be taken to assess the possibility of removing unlawful information. Perhaps posts accuse David and Ruth of being knowingly involved, or incite the locals to forsake the pheasant shoot and instead march armed to the barn to voice their concerns (far-fetched perhaps, but no one expected an armed march on the Capitol in Washington D.C. after all.)

Ruth also suggests “We could contact all our bookings, talk to them directly… answer their questions, try and reassure them somehow.” Yes Ruth. Just because some damage has been done, does not mean that they should make like an ostrich and hope that this will go away. A personal approach to contacts and customers to meet the bad news head on can allow them to take control and reassure their customers. It’s a judgment call depending on the circumstances, the seriousness and extent of the publication and its dissemination.

But the stance of albeit seasoned businessman, Brian Aldridge, that they should just “Wait it out, stand firm”, or that of son Josh, “All we can do is hope that it doesn’t come up in too many searches” isn’t helpful. That is not all you can do Josh. The Archer family may be more familiar with cows and sheep, but they need to remember that the Internet is like an elephant, it never forgets. If they leave inaccurate and damaging information online, there it will fester, unaddressed, to feature in every Google search by an eager bridegroom, the potential fake news believed and trusted as truth, doing untold harm to their brand, forever.

The nature of the response

Ruth is rightly concerned that a reply online “could easily make it worse” and that an ill-judged response “would be all over social media as well…” Had they sought our advice on Philip’s arrest and had a reactive statement in hand, prepared not in the hot-house of the immediate urgency, but in the cool and calm before it arose, they would feel more secure now and be more prepared. Engaging in an online spat is unseemly and rarely the right choice.

Think before we post

Equally the wrong choice, given his after-the-event regret, was Rex’s decision to exercise his annoyance with David and Ruth via social media rather than to them direct, unleashing his online rant to crash around the internet like a prize bull in the local community shop. “I didn’t know anyone was going to screen-shot it. I wasn’t thinking about consequences. If I could take it back, I would. But I can’t…” Correct Rex, you can’t now take it back, as social media users the world over find to their cost, pressing send before they have considered the consequences. Today, any fool with a smart phone can publish to millions of people at the touch of a button – the lesson to be learnt is think before we post.

Reputation – our most valuable asset

David may be a bit of a glass half empty sort of chap, but he is not wrong to question the ramifications of this unfortunate online issue. “How many other bookings are going to cancel? We could take a big financial hit”, he says. While Ruth, usually a bit more upbeat than her hubby, is similarly worried, “But it’s worse than that. Is this how Brookfield is going to be seen from now on?”

Reputation is our most valuable asset. We cannot allow it to be tarnished by a small and silly snub or snipe because when shouted through the megaphone of the media, the damage can be significantly amplified. “Farming depends on trust, on reputation, making the right connections” David says to Ruth. Exchange “farming” for “any business” and he’s right.

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