Hidden Camera Stories Can Be Dangerous

When it first appeared on the horizon, the story was a category 5 hurricane with the potential to cause serious damage. By the time, it made landfall, it was more like a weak tropical storm. All because this U.S. retail chain asked the tough questions.

After a television newsmagazine called the company, asking if they could conduct an interview with senior management, the public relations director called Gerard Braud. Braud developed seven pages of questions for the PR director to ask TV show’s producer. “I wanted to develop a roadmap of where they were taking the story,” he says.

Although surprised at the number of questions, the producer answered them. “We asked point blank if they had hidden camera video,” says Braud, “and the producer confirmed that it would be used. When he refused to let us view it, we asked him about what we would see and in what states the footage had been shot.” Using that information, Braud identified the issues on which he thought the story would focus. Then, with his own hidden camera, he visited retail outlets in the states where the network had filmed. His goal: to duplicate what the network found.

Upon his return, he screened the video for the training department to determine if proper customer service procedures were followed in the stores. Time and time again, he was told that the salespeople were conducting themselves exactly the way they were trained. In fact, the retail chain enjoyed a 97 percent satisfaction rate for the customer service. Based on these findings, Braud developed another set of questions which the PR director presented to the producer. “We were successful in taking several issues off the table because of the research we’d done,” says Braud.

Preparation continued down to the last minute. The day before the interview, Braud conducted media training with the executive who would be interviewed. Then he and the PR director, along with corporate lawyers and a team of experts from the company, met with the producer for two hours and went over the issues one at a time. More topics came off the table as the producer was shown detailed descriptions in the company’s training manuals, descriptions that shot down suspicions that the company was not acting on the best behalf of consumers. Using what they had learned in their meeting, Braud spent the evening conducting even more focused media training with the corporate executive. By 11:00 p.m., he believed he had covered all the questions that would be asked – in the order they were likely to be asked. And in fact, the actual interview was almost identical to the final role play he and the executive completed.

The resulting story was weak. The network, which had sought to do a buyer-beware piece on the retail chain, was left with a segment featuring a few isolated consumers who seemed to be asking for special treatment.

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