Liz and Rachel
Rachel Rosenblatt (L) and Liz Janisse co-authored this article.

We’re living in the era of the documentary, a time when [insert favorite streaming service here] has the scoop on cults, tigers, murder mysteries and even threats to corporate reputations.

Today, there are more than 50 different streaming services in North America alone, all competing for subscribers and ad spend with sought-after original content.

Considering the time spent binge-watching TV increased dramatically due to the global pandemic, there are captive viewers around the world eagerly anticipating the next talked-about documentary or multipart docuseries. And the engaging, dynamic style of the end product has the potential to make an impact: The leading documentary is poignantly scored, with dynamic visuals and a strategically interwoven narrative that can bring an audience to its knees—and your company’s reputation right along with it.

Rather than institutional leadership and traditional media driving the narrative about companies and their legacies, in the case of high-profile documentaries, the masses are brought in to “see for themselves”—serving as both judge and jury for unsolved mysteries, open murder cases and corporate scandals alike, with a curated set of facts and perspectives presented in a fashion that allows the audience to draw its own conclusions about fact versus fiction.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '23 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

In 2023, companies need to ask themselves: What do we do when our organization is in the crosshairs of a compelling, high-profile documentary?

Understanding the ask

With the demand for content at an all-time high, inquiries can take a variety of forms, with diverse teams made up of freelancers, producers, investigative reporters and independent filmmakers. It’s important to dig deep and understand the ask coming from documentarians to get a sense of the form, reach and nature of the end product—attributes that will no doubt shape your opportunity to engage.

At the end of the day, your communications team isn’t drafting the storyboard or weighing in on the final cut. How do you make the decision whether to participate in a documentary project when you know the outcome is likely just varying degrees of reputational damage for your organization? It’s a difficult decision to make, and one in which there will never be a clear right or wrong answer.

Research and readiness are vital to the initial response. When assessing an inquiry, it’s important to consider factors like:

  • Credentials: What past work are these filmmakers and/or journalists known for? What examples of their past work can you find and watch—noting tone, overall approach and interview style?
  • Stage in the process: Where do the creators stand in the process? Are they putting out initial feelers, or have they already conducted many interviews?
  • Distribution channel: What, if any, streaming platforms or outlets have the documentary makers been engaging with? What is the reach and profile of these forums?

Laying the foundation

The potential impact of a talked-about documentary cannot be overstated. This is the intersection of mainstream media and multichannel entertainment with a strong potential to prompt social media discussion and scrutiny from stakeholders alike.

That’s exactly why it’s important to get in front of the documentary topics before it hits viewers’ screens—lay a foundation, a “pre-buttal,” to prime your stakeholders and develop the proof points needed to share your side of the story.

Spokespeople selection

If you do make the decision to put forward a spokesperson, the ideal choice for a documentary must have expertise in the relevant focus areas and is prepared to balance candor and animation with restraint and the careful delivery of key messages. Preparation and robust media training—along with a level of comfort in public speaking—are all significant factors.

In some instances, offering multiple spokespeople can be helpful in ensuring diverse representation and maximizing your chances of avoiding the cutting room floor. Consider the likelihood your speaker will make the final cut, the risks of expanding your presence in the end product, your ability to address reactive topics head-on and how a corporate presence lends credence to the narrative.

Crisis preparedness and planning

Scenario-planning efforts should be undertaken to understand the risk of blowback from investors, employees, business partners and other key audiences. Your reactive communications strategy must anticipate stakeholder concerns and address them head-on—all while remaining nimble, prepared to deliver your messaging across a range of platforms as needed.

Give particular attention to how you can best influence the media narrative going into and throughout the release. Whatever the issue at stake, make certain your organization has a strong narrative to combat the reputational threats—complete with compelling data points, powerful messaging and the right delivery.

Managing expectations

In these circumstances, it becomes necessary for us to redefine success. Your corporation may not come out on the other side of a documentary exposé completely unscathed, but in many cases, you can affect the outcome—sharing your narrative, acting in transparency and, above all, demonstrating empathy.

Roll the credits

Between a captive, streaming-obsessed audience and a wave of competition in entertainment services, we’re living in the era of the documentary. Corporations must be prepared to engage with documentary inquiries to ensure the perspectives of corporate leaders are represented.

While this distinctive medium certainly poses unique challenges, when leveraged properly, a documentary can serve as a significant opportunity to refine your issues management approach and reinforce your organization’s narrative.


Rachel Rosenblatt is Senior Managing Director, Corporate Reputation, at FTI Consulting Strategic Communications. Liz Janisse is Senior Consultant, Crisis & Litigation Communications, at FTI Consulting Strategic Communications.