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PR Observations: Mr Bates vs The Post Office

It’s rare my TV gets covered in tea. I mean, it’s happened on occasion that it is covered with a small child’s meal, at the point when said small child decides the homestead could do with a little more jam on a few more surfaces.

But at the turn of the year, like many across the UK, I became a tutting, swearing, spit-out-your-PG Tips ball of rage, induced by watching the quite brilliant ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’.

The drama, led by national treasure Toby Jones, details the egregious calumny and soaring injustice faced by sub-postmasters because of a faulty IT system and subsequent mishandling by The Post Office powers that be.

This scandal has been written about, discussed, legally contested, and covered for about a decade. Private Eye has an encyclopedia's worth of columns on it, the BBC did a deep dive on Horizon, and every single major newspaper has given it more than one meaty story.

And yet, only now has it hit national consciousness. Only now are the Government being forced to support additional action that may exonerate the victims en masse. Only now is everyone talking about it and hurling abuse at their TV sets (presumably with more gusto if the TV they own is a Fujitsu).

Often, when an issue is slightly esoteric or complex in some way, people just don’t have the time to truly engage. So your lever is getting them emotionally. And that’s why drama is, in these cases, by far the most pervasive medium. This isn’t the first time national awareness and support have been gained in this way. In the 60s, Ken Loach’s homelessness television play ‘Cathy Come Home’ directly resulted in the creation of the charity Crisis; in the 90s, Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Hillsborough’ started to turn people away from the tabloid headlines and in support of the truth.

As a piece of communication, I very much doubt we’ll see a more effective one than Mr Bates vs. The Post Office in 2024. Certainly, not one that has the same positive impact on people’s lives.

On the flip side, best wishes to the team in the Fujitsu press office. Incidentally, Fujitsu's UK head office is in Bracknell, which is where I grew up. There are always moments when Bracknell gets some mentions on TV – I’m still waiting for the time when it’s positive. I guess that’s what you get for being the only place in the whole world that’s trying to be Milton Keynes.

Anywho, if you haven’t watched Mr Bates vs, The Post Office, make sure you do, but maybe hold off on the cup of tea until it’s finished.

This PR Observations column was written by David Quainton, head of communications at the digital consultancy Emergn. The opinions are his own.

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