This is an interview I did for Third Sector magazine that appeared in the issue out 20/9/11:
The Blue Cross became the first charity to be featured in Channel 4’s Undercover Boss when Kim Hamilton, its chief executive, posed as a volunteer to appear in an episode in July.
Production company Studio Lambert asked the animal welfare charity if it wanted to take part in the series, in which bosses assume a false identity to get a taste of life on the front line.
This raised the prospect of valuable exposure to millions of viewers but also posed a 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 therefore I thought the risks of unearthing something like that was unlikely.”
She also saw it as an opportunity for her to see if anything was happening in the charity she was unaware of and to “reach out to a much younger audience”.
Hamilton’s faith was tested because Blue Cross had little say in the programme’s editorial direction. Due to the secretive nature of the show even most of the charity’s press team were 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 being filmed for a programme called “Workplace Docs”.
Filming took place on eight separate days over three weeks. One major obstacle was making Hamilton unrecognisable: this was achieved with hair dye, glasses and make-up.
Another problem occurred when Studio Lambert wanted Hamilton to drive the ambulance. “The ambulance crew wouldn’t let me until they saw my licence,” saysHamilton.
Steve Goody, the Blue Cross’ 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,” saysHamilton.
The charity successfully requested the production company change a voiceover, which impliedHamiltonhad got rid of all the directors when she joined.
It was based on a comment by Hamilton but in fact she had only replaced some directors. “It sounded quite harsh and gave the wrong impression,”Hamilton says.
During filming, Laura Sleight, head of media relations, was the only member of the press team present. She provided administrative support and encouraged staff to relax in front of the cameras. In some instances she left the room to make them more comfortable.
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 crews.
However Hamilton says: “The experience has only 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 aired.