Tunnel Vision: the story behind the Crossrail documentary

Crossrail and Transport for London made a documentary to promote their railway project. Should you get in on the action?

By Gabrielle Lane and Alex Benady,

A project on the scale of Crossrail doesn’t come along very often. London’s first new railway since 1979 will span more than 100km and 41 stations. It has so far cost £1bn and taken more than 130 million work hours to build, and that means it comes with commute-busting, economy-boosting public expectations.

The task of communicating the project’s worth falls jointly to Crossrail Ltd and Transport for London (TfL), and for Europe’s largest infrastructure project they had a particular strategy in mind.

In February 2019, the third series of The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway began airing on BBC Two. In the words of Matt Brown, TfL’s director of news and external relations: “Working on a documentary that captured the enormity of the engineering challenge felt like the right thing to do. It gave us the chance to reach a large non-specialist audience and explain exactly how you go about building, fitting out and preparing for a project as important as this.”

TfL has commissioned a number of fly-on-the-wall documentaries in recent years, including programmes about the Underground for Channel 5; a look at the surface transport network for BBC Two; and an episode about the London taxi ‘Knowledge’ course for Channel 4.

The purpose of these programmes is to raise the organisation’s profile. “Our documentary work unquestionably raises awareness of who we are and the work we do,” Brown says. And, while he jokes that “there seems to be a weirdly insatiable appetite for transport documentaries”, this medium is being used successfully by PRs in other sectors too. Here’s what you need to know.

Why do I need a documentary?

Documentaries work for both internal and external comms strategies because they capture real events. “Done well, a business-focused documentary can increase your company’s credibility and allow for self-reflection,” says Adam Neale, MD of video-production company Bold Content.

The non-fiction treatment also builds consumer trust. “We live in a social media world where authenticity is everything. Documentaries have that stamp of authenticity,” says Emily Jones, creative director of production company Bold Yellow (no relation to Bold Content). That said, creative storytelling remains crucial.

What should my topic be?

“When making a documentary, you need to understand what you are trying to say, who it is aimed at and what channels it will be shown on,” says Neale. That’s true whether you are creating a two-minute film for YouTube or a series on prime-time television. And you need a plan for every episode.

Coca-Cola highlighted its water-purification work with orange farmers in Valencia through short documentaries on Vimeo. “You can use your footage in different ways for different audiences,” says Neale. One Coca-Cola film focused on the brand’s practical contribution to the project. Another took an emotional, human-interest approach and explored its work through the eyes of a local farmer.

“There is great benefit to people knowing the values of your company,” says Neale. “Viewers will be more likely to engage with a business when they can identify common ideals.”

Will I have full creative control?

While you should set your comms objectives, for audience appeal you should defer to a creative partner. “You must allow a production company the room to create their narrative,” says Jones. “That means having a narrative arc, exciting moments, interesting personalities and some real jeopardy.”

TfL’s Brown advises: “Have an open discussion with the makers about what you would like to see reflected, cognisant of their independence. No documentary that anyone actually wants to watch can seem like a corporate video. The best results come from being brave and allowing the cameras into moments where things could go either way.”

When online money-transfer provider WorldRemit wanted to communicate its brand values, Bold Yellow took the lead. “WorldRemit told us who to speak to and then took a step back and let us get on with our work,” says Jones. The result was A Migrant’s Journey, the story of company founder Ismail Ahmed’s flight from his war-torn home in Somaliland to London, capturing his business purpose in a powerful and emotive way.

How can internal comms help?

With the plan in place, it’s down to internal comms teams to keep staff on board as a documentary progresses. “We need to engage with those who make the documentaries what they are – the characters. Seeking out individuals and building relationships is a big part of the work involved,” says Brown. “Safety is also paramount when filming, so we require some staff and film crews to complete intensive training before they go on site.”

To help with this internal organisation, “clarity about the number of crew, working hours and what will be required of your team is essential”, adds Brown. “For 60 minutes of footage aired as part of a documentary, there can be hundreds of hours of filming and planning.”

How will I screen my documentary?

You don’t need a TV opportunity to reap the benefits of a documentary. In fact, some suggest you opt out. “The TV director will only be interested in driving viewership and that often involves drama, conflict and extremes. TV can seem like a great opportunity, but don’t even consider it unless you have a written contract and full editorial control, with a veto,” says Nat Wilson, partner at production company Fletcher Wilson.

There are now many social media platforms on which you can choose to show your film instead. YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram and Wochit are just a few.

Ashley Simpson is digital media editor at Goldsmiths, University of London. She makes roughly 50 films a year about her institution. While she prefers to use YouTube to share shorter films – its 1.9 billion unique monthly users are a great draw – she posts longer, more complex documentaries on Vimeo.

“Vimeo is much higher quality, which makes it more prestigious, with a more engaged audience. You can password-protect your film and there are other functional advantages, such as the fact that you can replace the video but keep the same URL,” she says.

How do I measure success?

Viewing figures can sound impressive: a documentary series about London Underground averaged 1.5 million viewers. But a change in consumer perception is the real aim. TfL uses post-screening surveys to measure its audience’s opinion of the brand. “A huge majority of people interviewed in subsequent research said the series improved the way they viewed TfL,” says Brown. “That is quite extraordinary.”

Where do I go from here?

A documentary functions much like any other piece of comms collateral. That means you can use its performance to shape your future strategy.

“A common mistake is failure to thoroughly think through every aspect of a documentary film – its rationale, production, distribution and evaluation. Many companies’ approach to video strategy is haphazard,” says Neale.

Hard work done, he adds, consider this: “How are you going to use any feedback, such as total views, watch time, ‘likes’ and click-throughs, to modify the film itself and how you promote it?”


A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.

Image courtesy of flickr user Association for Project Management

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