As an industry we talk a lot about the impact of social media and online but when a major broadcast TV programme shows an interest in you that can be a game-changer.
by Theresa Knight
A request from a researcher at ITV for an actor to visit one of MHA’s care homes landed on my desk. Interesting.
But as a former journalist and one who has worked in PR and communications for quite a while now, you just know there is more to this simple request. And what followed led myself and the organisation I work with on a 20-month-journey we never would have expected.
The call was from Emmerdale, the long-running ITV show. Further questioning and we discovered that one of their long-running characters, Ashley Thomas, was about to be diagnosed with dementia. As part of his research, actor John Middleton wanted to visit a care home which cared for people living with dementia.
And here is the first thing we learnt – never underestimate who your residents and customers might be connected to. It turned out the reason why John had chosen Glen Rosa in Ilkely, Yorkshire is because it had been recommended by a colleague whose grandmother was living there. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.
We met with John and researcher Liam Johnson at the ITV studios in Leeds, where they film the show and discussed how we could be of help. We’re a national charity providing care and support for older people through community-based schemes, retirement living communities and care homes. We have specialist dementia places and provide award-winning music therapy for our residents living with dementia.
Visits to Glen Rosa were arranged, and I smuggled John into the manager’s office for a chat. We had to be careful at this stage and invent a cover story as this was a good four months before the storyline broke on screen.
Further smuggling took place a few weeks later when John and Charlotte Bellamy, who plays his on screen wife Laurel, visited to talk to one of our resident’s wives about the impact dementia has on a family. Again, secrecy was high, but nearly broke when another visiting relative spotted Charlotte and remarked loudly ‘it’s vicar’s wife off tele!’ (to be said in a broad Yorkshire accent).
Our new dementia lead Kate Fisher then got involved and the scripts started rolling in. ITV was making sure of its research and determination to get the storyline right and as realistic as possible.
Discussions on storylines followed, we made a number of comments back to the scriptwriters, and we’ve been described by John of having almost final script approval on Ashley’s scenes.
In a departure for ITV, we were invited to be part of the media release announcing the special episode in December 2016. And that gave us exposure beyond anything I’d dealt with in the past. Opening the daily email from our monitoring service was a shock. We’d racked up 100 plus mentions across all sorts of platforms overnight. And I never thought I’d see my name in publications like Inside Soap.
And that was lesson number two. Association with a show as big as Emmerdale really can raise your profile via the media. It’s meant that we have been able to talk to media outlets with authority and have since featured on the BBC Six and Ten O’clock news programmes.
From the initial release, we were invited along to join the table at two press conferences as the storyline began to reach its end. Sitting at the table alongside the actors on set really is an experience I’ll never forget.
But what other learning points are there from our work with ITV?
One is that secrecy is everything at the start of the relationship. We had four agonising months when we couldn’t say anything to anyone about what we were doing, despite wanting to shout from the rooftops about our involvement. Only our Chief Executive knew what we were doing. Had we broken that trust ITV had with us, we would never have been given an opportunity ever again.
Another is that you have to be prepared to give time to nurture the relationship. The dementia storyline was a long running one in terms of soapland and was, at times, full on in checking scripts for accuracy and giving feedback at key times in the storyline.
But it was all worth it. The praise the show has received for the storyline and the plaudits being given to John and Charlotte mean we’ve been proud to be associated with Emmerdale. It can only help our reputation as a provider of care and services for older people and we’ve been using that in our marketing.
On a personal level it led to one of the most surreal moments of my life so far. Sitting on the sofa one evening, I was channel hopping between shows, which included the British Soap Awards which were being broadcast on prime time ITV. So imagine my shock – and then pride and delight – as I heard my name read out by John when he accepted the award for Best Storyline in recognition of our work with the show.
When we started on the journey, I never expected that to be an outcome.
Theresa Knight is Media Relationships Manager at Methodist Homes
image via Florida Memory