There’s a brilliantly funny episode in Alan Partridge’s first series, the doomed chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You. In it, Partridge quite blatantly product-promotes a can of Sprunt, a German drinks company that has done some kind of tie-up with Norwich’s finest. He stops an interviewee mid-sentence, takes a sip, turns to the camera and says, "Mmmm, Sprunt".
This morning, the BBC Today programme’s very own Partridge impersonator, Garry Richardson, had his own Sprunt moment. At 7.25am, after chatting on the radio to England fast bowler Jimmy Anderson about cricket, he handed over to John Humphries by telling everyone that he was speaking to the cricketer, "in conjunction with Brut aftershave who he is an ambassador for".
Cue howls of opprobrium on social media for such crass product placement, including myself on Twitter. After all, this is the BBC’s most important news programme lowering itself to the trend for content marketing and advertorial so beloved by newspapers and magazines.
And yet when I thought about it, I realised how smart Brut had been – because it sensed the BBC’s desperation for a certain story. Not simply to get a largely bland interview with a pretty dull sportsman but to ask a certain question and get a favourable answer.
Out of nowhere, Richardson asked Anderson whether he thought the much-anticipated return of live cricket to terrestrial TV – ie the BBC – was a "very important thing for the game". Of course, the bowler replied, it will boost interest in the game and give it a much-needed shot in the arm.
Read between the lines – the BBC is saving cricket. And in a classic you-scratch-my-back deal, which is exactly how journalists love to operate (though presumably not often on the BBC’s flagship news programme), Richardson returned the favour by telling everyone that his interviewee was a man who loves to smell like a man.
What Brut’s PR and marketing team did was not to think like a brand but to think like a journalist. There’s no way that a BBC reporter would ever plug a product like that ... unless the product’s spokesman was prepared to plug the BBC.
What Brut’s PR and marketing team did was not to think like a brand but to think like a journalist.
As a former journalist, I now consult for companies who want to get a better media profile and my advice is always to think like a journalist. In fact some companies I work for, Omnicom’s market research company Hall & Partners in particular, are adapting their business models to behave more journalistically so that they can tell better stories.
A two-minute interview on BBC radio is the perfect chance to tell a story – this morning Jimmy Anderson told several. He was fit and ready, he loved to watch cricket on the BBC and that it’s going to be an exciting summer. And because his PR advisers behaved journalistically, they seduced the BBC into helping him tell one more story – he likes Brut.
The BBC on the other hand was not happy by this shameless collaboration in product promotion. A spokesman said: "This was a mistake. It should not have happened. We apologise and the programme’s sport production team is being reminded of the editorial guidelines on product prominence."
Still, I suppose it could have been more embarrassing for Garry Richardson. He could have ended the segment by shouting "A-ha".
Grant Feller is a media consultant and former Daily Mail and Daily Express executive.