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Best Buy - balance in reporting consumer journalism

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Andrew Smith | 13:46 PM, Friday, 7 May 2010

tightrope_walker_303x170.jpgOur report on Best Buy - the arrival of the American electrical retailer in the UK became controversial before it had finished. Listeners complained that we were offering a promotional platform for the company and in effect had become part of their PR operation.

"What the heck is this advert?", asked one. "A very prolonged advert" and a "free advert" were two more comments which rolled in by e-mail while we were still on air. There's also a thread on the subject on the Radio 4 Message Board which expresses similar sentiments.

Stories about new products and services are often misinterpreted when they appear on a consumer programme like You and Yours. Many listeners expect us to be "up and at" companies - finding the flaws in their business offer and exposing their wrong-doings.

My sense is that modern consumers want raw information as well as warnings about poor practice. They want to know about new, commercially available, products and services. A new retailer with ambitions to challenge Currys and Comet about to start operating in the UK, is of interest to anyone likely to buy a new television or washing machine in the not too distant future. It's particularly interesting when the company involved is an established US retailer. It's also promising its stores will be manned by salaried staff who are knowledgeable about the products it sells - a development likely to be welcomed by shoppers fed-up with fending off commission hungry shop staff.

A report by Alan Budd for the BBC Trust on BBC business reporting criticised a "preoccupation with taking the consumer perspective" and warned against "the polarisation of views between business and consumer."

To me that means we shouldn't turn up at Best Buy assuming they're trying to fleece every paying customer (unless we have evidence that they are.) But we do need to have our wits about us. Best Buy did employ one of the leading PR agencies Freud Communications to orchestrate their launch. Prior to the event there were briefings to selected analysts and journalists. We were not allowed to attend. Best Buy knew they'd get more media attention on Day One than on any other hence the megaphone-equipped cheerleaders and the attractive opening sale offers.

The BBC's editorial guidelines warn against giving "undue prominence" to commercial products or services and against appearing to endorse any organisation - "its products, activities or services."

Rob Gregory - an analyst from Planet Retail with a decade in retail research behind him and a specialist in the electronics sector, provided the context to the excitement and razzamatazz of Best Buy's "G.O." - or Grand Opening. He told us, among other things, that prices online can still be cheaper than Best Buy can offer. Our reporter Catherine Carr mentions the retaliation of the competition and expresses natural scepticism about those enticing first day offers and how long they'll last.

So this kind of story is always a tightrope. I'd be interested to know how many listeners felt that with Best Buy, we really lost our balance.

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