CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Take your average seven-figure CEO and add a load of the company's dirty laundry. Put him in a funny suit while he meets some of his best frontline workers -- and screws up their jobs. At the end, he can give them raises, and address problems exposed along the way.
It's a classic redemption story -- the kind American TV viewers love -- and the premise for CBS's surprise hit "Undercover Boss," which scored 38 million viewers after the Super Bowl. But is the exposure worth the risk?
Some PR pros and lawyers say no way. But the surprise hit has an impressive raft of executives lined up for first-season duty, among them, 7-Eleven, Waste Management, Churchill Downs and even Hooters. Producers sought only known brands, and a diversity of industries and personalities, such as self-made types and those who inherited their positions.
"On balance, it probably has greater potential to backfire," said Gene Grabowski, senior VP at Levick Communications, noting that to be successful, it has to be entertaining, and therefore, "it just has too many problems for many companies."
Of course, American big business is mired in a PR crisis as CEOs have historically struggled with credibility and sectors such as banking have been battered in the realm of public perception. Matthew Harrington, president-CEO of Edelman U.S., said he doesn't see the series so much as a way to demonstrate contrition, but "hopefully a venue that will actually show that CEOs are really interested in their employees and what the customer service experience is like and to some degree foster transparency." He added he'd "recommend clients do it even if they didn't have a TV crew following them."
'Leap of faith'
"Undercover Boss" doesn't accept buy-ins. Companies featured were approached to participate, and given assurance that the show wouldn't damage the brand. While they're able to suggest areas to highlight, producers pick the jobs CEOs will do, which employees they'll be working with and, obviously, which incidents from the 12- to 14-hour taping to highlight in the hourlong episode. But the boss is always there when the cameras are rolling.
Documentarian and "Undercover" creator Stephen Lambert, who also created "Wife Swap" and "Secret Millionaire," conceded that participants "were taking a leap of faith." "They didn't have editorial control or approve the cut in any way," he said. "They had to trust us."
So who would subject their brand, their employees, and themselves to so much risk? Most takers have unknown products, small ad budgets, are part of an industry in decline or have little to lose.
Chief marketer of 7-11 Rita Bargerhuff persuaded CEO Joseph DePinto to do the program because she sensed an opportunity to promote the chain's higher-quality-coffee initiative and its bakery products. "A lot of people don't realize our sandwiches are made fresh every day," she said, adding that "Undercover Boss" will give her brand access to a broader audience than her ad budget can usually reach.
Still, Ms. Bargerhuff conceded fearing a Lucy-on-the-assembly-line moment. "Very few people can walk into plant job or bakery commissary and do it well," she said. But the company, which has honored several employees with promotions, raises and even a commitment to raising organ-donor awareness, sees the experience as overwhelmingly positive. It didn't hurt, either, that 7-Eleven and Waste Management were featured on the "Oprah Winfrey" show before the series' premiere.
Julie Koenig, VP-brand development and marketing at Churchill Downs, said putting Chief Operating Officer William Carstanjen on camera is part of a larger effort to remind fans that the company has more than one racetrack -- filming took place when the flagship course was closed -- and the company hosts more than just the Kentucky Derby. The company, which is battling sluggish attendance along with the rest of the racing industry, is trying to spin its product as entertainment rather than pure sport. Churchill chose Mr. Carstanjen in part because CEO Robert Evans would have been too easily recognizable. Seven-Eleven's Mr. DePinto had to hide or duck out several times during filming, and grew a beard to avoid recognition.
Waste Management CEO Larry O'Donnell likely made the toughest decision. Bosses approached for subsequent episodes consulted with him and were able to see his pilot trailer. Mr. Lambert had already done the "Undercover Boss" for the U.K., and so Mr. O'Donnell had more than one conversation with Stephen Martin, who runs a British construction company called Clugstons.
When communications manager Lynn Brown approached him with the opportunity, "I told her she was crazy," Mr. O'Donnell said. "I wasn't going to do a reality TV show." It took numerous conversations, but Mr. O'Donnell was finally swayed by the prospect of honoring "unsung heroes" within his ranks.
Even so, Waste Management was dinged in the episode for docking employees double time if they came back late from lunch. It proved to be a misunderstanding, Ms. Brown said. Employees were reading a 0.02 hour charge for being one minute late, and took that as a two-minute charge. But the cameras were off by the time it was understood. However, two days after the episode aired, Mr. O'Donnell said the company had received countless e-mails thanking him for his work, promising never to look at the garbage man the same, and wanting to do business with Waste Management. Not bad for a B-to-C pitch of a B-to-B product.
The Hooters episode, previewed during the premiere, had portents of disaster. While no one expects the breast-based chain to be a paragon of female empowerment, waitresses appeared to be participating in a hands-free eating contest at a manager's behest. In a statement, Coby Brooks, CEO of the chain, which is currently for sale, described the program as a "great opportunity" to get back into the front lines and "an experience" he will "never forget."
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Contributing: Michael Bush
Why might you want to go 'undercover'?PROS