How thoughtful comms delivered justice in Mr Bates v the Post Office

Amplify’s Hugo Bennett shows how the power of comms delivered justice in the UK.

Written by: Hugo Bennett
Published by: The Drum
Date: 11/01/2024

“There’s millions of people out there who’ve never heard of us!”

I finally jumped on the bandwagon to watch the widely shared four-part ITV series, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which has flung the 20-year-long fraud case back to the top of the UK news agenda in a way that we’ve never seen before - and with an even bigger impact on the ongoing campaign for justice.

The show pieces together the harrowing story of over 700 Royal Mail Subpostmasters who were wrongly accused of false accounting and the theft of, in some cases, tens of thousands of Post Office funds. In reality, the false accounts were actually caused by technical bugs in the Horizon accounting system, owned by Japanese tech manufacturer, Fujitsu.

When the drama series didn’t have you shouting at the TV screen, it had you crying, as the TV show uncovered the corruption and flawed system in which the Royal Mail functions to this day. Over 700 of the subpostmasters’ lives were ruined - losing their jobs, their life savings, and reputations. Some spent time in prison, while some even ended up, heartbreakingly, taking their own lives. Only 93 convictions have been overturned so far, with many more still yet to see justice.

At the time, the comms strategist in me furiously typed away with some of the key valuable lessons we can learn from Mr Bates vs The Post Office campaign.

The challenge for the Bates campaign started with the fact that the wider population didn’t understand quite how deep and dark the story goes. Moreover, the story is mind-bogglingly complicated, with over 700 characters, all with different blood-boiling stories to tell.

The series shows the campaign making initial headlines in smaller publications like Computer Weekly and local TV news channels. At this point, many subpostmatsers were unaware fellow colleagues in different post offices had experienced the same situation.

“The trouble is, nobody watches local news - nobody’s listening.” Bates murmurs to his wife as the local MP, James Arbuthnot is interviewed by local TV.

Bates knew that for a problem this big, the story needed to circle through the masses in order to capture the attention of lawmakers to bring them results. The comms ecosystem required a story to be put through the right channels in a way that drove shareability. This would lead to petition signatures, which created renewed media exposure and parliamentary debates. Their previous strategy of attacking it directly through the courts without true public understanding and government support was not delivering on their objectives.

While the Post Office scandal has frequently caught national (and even international) headlines at numerous points throughout the last decade, it still hasn’t created the impact it needed - until now. Asking around friends and colleagues, many had heard about it before, but an alarming number hadn’t come across it or didn’t really know the full story.

Looking to the wider general population, Bates clearly needed to think about how to communicate the full story in a way that would connect with the audience, drive shareability, and ultimately generate waves among legislators.

Here enters the clever cultural truth…

Recent years have seen a huge surge in interest in true crime with series like Netflix’s DAHMER - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which was one of the most viewed original series on the platform in 2022, and BBC’s The Serpent, which aired in 2021.

Audiences love the thrill of these non-fiction tales and all the horrifying details that come with them - many of which will go on to post on X, TikTok, or Instagram to share their horror with the world. It’s the same response that got me watching this very series on ITV.

For the Bates campaign, giving the story to director and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes gave them the right channel to tell the full story in a slow-burn fashion. Hughes spent three years working on the drama that has captured and immersed the UK, surpassing the viewing figures of The Tourist which was scheduled in parallel on BBC.

The result of this has been a huge result for the subpostmasters: Rishi Sunak has announced laws to overturn all criminal convictions and repay the accused. A petition has been signed over 1 million times for ex-Post Office CEO Paula Vennels to return her CBE, successfully resulting in Vennels handing it back. Officials at Fujitsu and the Post Office are being brought into question by the government. Justice has (or is) being served, all thanks to the new approach to comms taken by the Subpostmasters campaign.

As comms strategists, the series leaves us with some insightful lessons: sometimes the obvious channels aren’t the answer to solving our comms challenges and we can find success in the unexpected - albeit this approach requires a much larger budget! Grasping an understanding of the problem and ecosystem that it exists in and then adjusting the approach using current human and cultural truths, allowed them to frame the story in an immersive and engaging way which has an extremely positive track record for shareability across social. Lastly, embracing the comms crescendo to build momentum - the campaign started almost 20 years ago with an article in Computer Weekly, and grew into an ITV series.

As with many clients that need to drive awareness in a similar way, we can’t always jump straight to the big-budget ideas to drive success, but sometimes we need to grow into them through a test-and-learn approach.

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