ITV's prising of Michael Grade from the BBC caught the entire media community by surprise last week. But Grade's shock defection has already provided a much-needed dose of positive PR for a broadcaster whose travails have been played out in public for several months now.
The prolonged search for Charles Allen's successor, declining audience share, the impact of long-term shifts in ad spend, and concerns over a weak programme schedule, have all fuelled negative stories and consistently undermined ITV's attempts to position itself at the heart of modern British broadcasting.
Research carried out by Mantra PR during October explored in depth the views of 20 leading analysts and journalists on the ability of the major broadcasters to successfully execute their stated strategies.
The timing of the research particularly enabled us to track the twists and turns of the ITV drama, and it showed that the company is not alone in needing to clarify its strategy and reassure commentators that it possesses a clear vision for growth.
The research illustrates a clear gap between those companies considered to be doing well and those that are seen as struggling.
While it is naïve to believe that good communication can gloss over allproblems, it is interesting to note that in the research, ITV scored in the bottom-left quadrant. This indicates not only a lack of confidence in its strategy but, crucially, a lack of understanding of its strategy.
It is here that we see the direct role that clear communication has (or in ITV's case, does not have) in convincing outsiders that a company is on track.
The research highlights several areas in which companies are failing to communicate well. Interestingly, the first looms large in the case of ITV; namely, digital strategy. One journalist observed: ‘I'm sure they're working on that, I just don't know any details.'
The problem is clearly illustrated in attitudes towards the company's online acquisitions. One journalist said: ‘Friends Reunited [which ITV acquired for £120m a year ago] has been getting a lot less media support recently and it seems to have gone very corporate.'
Also, recent assertions that ITV's online operations are performing well, currently seem like too little too late.
The irony here is that ITV has lost credit through a tail-off of communication, while rivals such as Sky owner News Corporation have shot ahead (the latter with the - far more expensive - purchase of MySpace).
The second interesting area, particularly in light of NTL's ongoing interest in ITV, is that commentators believe that relatively recent broadcast market entrants - such as BT, NTL and Google - are overconfident in their ability to compete in the UK broadcast sector. This instantly underlines the attraction of ITV as a bid target, but it also suggests that under Grade's management, and with renewed corporate confidence, a quick turnaround is possible for ITV's reputation.
In terms of comms strategy in this sector, the biggest message overall from the research is that less is more. More effort needs to be spent face-to-face with analysts and journalists explaining corporate strategy, rather than an overreliance on press releases and staged announcements.
Many companies are creating so much noise that commentators are left confused. Areas in which this problem is particularly acute include strategies for making money from mobile, digital, interactive and radio.
It is in this area that Sky - in the top-right quadrant in the chart - in particular is exemplary. Journalists and analysts appreciated that the company ‘only speaks when it has something to say'.
Grade's former employers, the BBC and Channel Four, also gain credit for clearly communicated (and available) strategy statements. Nonetheless, many commentators are concerned that they do not appear to have a clear sense of corporate prioritisation or likely timetables for delivery. Various initiatives from both companies seem to have suddenly gone quiet.
This raises the question: why are comms teams not finding the time to take a step back and brief media and analysts face-to-face? Experience certainly suggests that the time of senior management is a major factor here, but the corporate comms department needs to ensure that focus is given to this critical area.
A consistent message, a segmentation of target audiences and a clear overall corporate communications strategy remain crucial.
While we may be witnessing a transformation of the broadcast sector with new entrants and a plethora of channels and media, the old rules of best practice in communications remain as true as ever.
And Grade's PR challenge? He needs to establish a coherent and thorough strategy across ITV's different platforms. He needs to persuade his staff that he can position ITV as a force to be reckoned with in the digital era. And then, crucially, he will need to communicate this externally as a convincing narrative about this potentially powerful brand.
Lawrence Dore is joint managing director of Mantra PR and heads the agency's media practice.