ANALYSIS: What part PR's role in ITV Digital's demise?

As the dust settles on the ruins of broadcaster ITV Digital, Peter Simpson assesses the brand's PR strategy and asks if anything could have been done in communications to prevent this corporate failure.

Faulty systems, greed, regulation and Government whim. All played a role in the clumsy saga that has left nearly one million customers with blank screens, more than 1,500 staff jobless, football clubs on the brink of financial collapse and the UK's digital dream in question.

But what charge should be laid at the door of PR in ITV Digital's demise?

First, no-one should doubt the accomplishment of re-branding ONdigital as ITV Digital featuring the woolly Monkey and comedian Johnny Vegas.

Consumer brand awareness of ON/ITV Digital was high but understanding was poor until Al and Monkey charged onto our screens and into the press a year ago.

Billed as the rival to BSkyB, the simple and cheap plug-in-and-play service offered customers a refreshing alternative. Scores of channels and pioneering internet services were on offer. In a marketing and PR fanfare it was declared the 'New Home of Football'.

'We had a highly talented in-house PR team and created a PR milestone with Monkey,' says former ITV Digital consumer PR manager Marcus Agar, who was made redundant last week.

In pure column inches, the PR work was successful, with news journalists submitting written questions to a woollen toy monkey and editors wiping clean pages to print its replies.

'We created the appetite for the brand through a strategic and creative PR campaign. I am proud of what we did,' adds Agar.

'PR could not have been expected to paper over the cracks,' says former ONdigital director of comms, Jessica Mann, who left the company prior to its rebrand. 'The PR for ONdigital, and then for ITV Digital, established the brand. But it's impossible for PR to work in such a difficult atmosphere and culture,' adds Mann, who spent three years at ONdigital, and today heads PR at Shire Pharmaceuticals.

Technical hitches, regulatory woes and the business acumen of BSkyB all conspired to render otherwise strong PR useless.

ITV Digital's sole external PR agency, Cake, along with ad agency Mother, was appointed for the rebranding and to support the football content.

Cake director Jim Dowling, says ITV Digital 'never had problems' bringing customers onto the platform: 'Consumers loved the campaigns. They understood exactly what they were getting. We had created an extremely popular and effective brand, and the offer was clear.'

But the battle was lost elsewhere. Enticing customers and informing them that Sky Sports was also available via ITV Digital was easy. Trouble arose when asking for loyalty - a hard task when a weak signal froze the picture so often the service was unwatchable.

'People just took the box back and cancelled their subscription. You can create a brand with PR but you can't hide a dodgy service,' says Dowling.

Inevitably, negative copy crept its way into the mainstream press and took a firm grip of the tabloids: 'From September 2001, ITV Digital outsold Sky Digital by two to one. No-one reported that,' he adds. 'What killed ITV Digital was the bad press in the tabloids. This damaged the confidence of those consumers who had started coming back.'.

Both Carlton Communications and the Granada Media Group refused to comment about ITV Digital's collapse, referring press calls to the administrating accountants, Deloitte & Touche, or to ITV itself. Network Centre corporate affairs head Nicola Howson also refused to comment.

But one senior Granada executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, told PRWeek PR was immune from blame: 'No-one can expect a PR programme to work if the product is faulty. The signal was like a Swiss cheese, regulation was too restrictive and the Government and the other media players involved in establishing a competitive digital TV service were unwilling to co-operate.'

If those in the TV world absolve the PR plans of blame, others are less charitable. One critic is John Nagle, director of comms at the Football League, whose insistence on being paid the £178m it was owed by ITV Digital under a broadcast rights deal was a contributory factor to the firm's collapse.

'PR for the brand could have been better. More information about football content was needed to establish loyalty,' he says.

The football aspect has moved centre stage, with Carlton and Granada in recent weeks in dispute with the league over liability for that money.

'To consumers and fans, there seems to be little brand distinction between ITV, ITV Digital or even Carlton and Granada. In media branding, they are all seen as villains of the piece,' claims Alex Bumaster, Football Fans Union director of comms.

Calls for ITV, Granada and Carlton to be banned from bidding for future football screening rights are growing, as is a boycott of ITV games.

The remaining PR needed for Carlton and Granada on this issue is focused on damage limitation and reputation repair. Branding campaigns and sales drives seem optimistic in the current climate.

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