REST Assured Funeral Plans faced certain ruin.
The fledgling company had received a letter from ITV listing damning allegations about its selling practices.
Undercover reporters posing as customers had recorded interactions with staff covertly and drawn up the charges.
They were to be screened midweek at 7.30pm on its flagship ‘Tonight Investigates’ show – the following week.
ITV’s letter gave Rest Assured nine days to look into the matter and respond before the show went to air.
Ruining the reputation of young companies in such a visible way usually leaves them little chance of recovery.
Established brands can weather media storms but damage done on primetime TV to new ones is often fatal.
Time was short. But I had valuable experience from working as an investigator for ITV’s ‘Tonight’ show under its inaugural presenter Sir Trevor McDonald.
I knew about the show’s culture, production practices, and what little and tenuous evidence was enough to support a cleverly-worded allegation.
AFTER review of the claims made, I interviewed company staff who spoke to ITV on calls. Then, the sales rep who visited its investigator’s home.
The research identified key problems with ITV’s assertions.
Their team first called Rest Assured during lunch and got someone in accounts.
ITV didn’t establish who fielded their call. An accounts junior, nine weeks into her job with no product training, had tried to answer the pointed questions helpfully, but ultimately insisted a colleague follow up the call – which they did.
None of that second call was being used as evidence to support ITV’s allegations. The only words being used were those of the accounts dept. junior, who was now deeply distressed at the prospect of failing her new employers.
Furthermore, no allegations were being made against the sales rep who made the home visit.
The show’s evidence was looking flimsy. ITV’s hand was weakening. Nevertheless, it remained intent on using its evidence to make a show.
There was little option but to counter each individual ITV accusation based on its hollow call evidence.
An email to the channel explained:
ITV PRODUCERS pressed on with the first two claims against Rest Assured, but dropped the third.
Realising their determination to make a show on distinctly dubious grounds, I advised Rest Assured to instruct defamation lawyers who could send legal letters citing our evidence.
The advice was taken. Successive letters sent to ITV’s legal and production teams advised restraint, and then threatened action.
Despite this still, ITV refused to remove Rest Assured from its show. Instead, it produced a new outline on which it wished the company to comment.
The channel had now dropped its second allegation and was focused solely on its first – a failure to mention an admin fee.
I drafted, edited and polished a statement for broadcast that targeted the consumer programme’s remaining claim.
It was submitted late, within 24 hours of screening, to avoid any further ‘clever’ editing of the show that might bypass Rest Assured’s final word on the matter.
The statement read:
‘Tonight Investigates – Pay Now, Die Later: Funerals Uncovered’ went out as scheduled.
Everyone related to our intense battle to rescue Rest Assured from reputation ruin pulled up a pew and watched.
The statement, as planned, left ITV with nowhere to go. It was read and used in conjunction with covert recordings of ITV’s calls, but only to highlight Rest Assured’s correct handling of their enquiries.
To our huge satisfaction, ITV then used Rest Assured’s operations as a benchmark by which it measured the funeral plan company’s competitors.
In nine days the company had gone from ‘rogue business’ facing closure to ‘exemplary industry leader’.
More than 1.5 million viewers watched the programme, which condemned four of Rest Assured’s competitors for malpractice and credited it.
I wondered if the evidence against them had been equally questionable, and what I might have done for them had they contacted Stones PR.
AFTER a brief pause, Stones PR secured a pilot scheme with the NHS’ partnership team.
Rest Assured would distribute organ donation literature during its home visits to sell funeral plans.
Its sales reps were already asking customers to make other end-of-life decisions, so introducing another around organ donation made perfect sense.
Reps would begin carrying NHS Blood and Transplant organ donor consent forms immediately.
The NHS would announce a pilot scheme and provide quotes for a Rest Assured news release. And I would circulate it to media.
Clever and controversial in equal measure, the partnership scheme had excellent news value at national level.
To further wet media appetites, I asked young mother Corinne Hynes to back the scheme.
She had recently received and publicised a letter from NHS Blood and Transplant citing five lives saved by her late fiancée’s organ donation.
Her story had touched the nation and Corinne was eager to publicise the pilot scheme, describing it as “brave and brilliant”.
Her support for it was written in a copy-rich news release and sent to media via email and the national news-wire network.
The Sun published a story online and included a link to Rest Assured’s website.
The Mirror published its story on page 17 of its print edition.
Within the funeral industry, Funeral Service Times covered the partnership.