Dutch chocolate maker Tony’s Chocolonely was bang on trend this week when it issued a hoax press release saying it was considering listing on the Amsterdam stock exchange.
The release was widely covered by Dutch news media, much to the glee of Tony’s. The company later put out a video displaying the headlines its publicity stunt had generated, and revealing the true news: not that that it’s going to the bourse but that it plans to open a shop in the Beurs van Berlage, adjacent to the Amsterdam bourse (‘beurs’). Get the joke?
Fake press releases are not new. Last year, a release purporting to be from French construction firm Vinci, saying its CFO had been sacked and that it would be restating its financial statements, sent its shares down almost 20 percent. But the obvious difference with Tony’s is that Vinci was the victim of the hoax, not the perpetrator.
So why did Tony’s do it? Presumably the company had bought into the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ credo. Perhaps it felt the visibility created by the hoax outweighed the risk of alienating duped journalists.
Maybe in commercial terms Tony’s is right – maybe they’ll sell more chocolate bars this way. But they won no friends in the media. They did nothing for the reputation of business, or of PR. And they certainly did nothing for vanishing public trust in the press. Most seriously, their ‘joke’ makes them a willing part of that fast-growing global problem: fake news.
Fact versus fiction
The increasing prevalence of fake news was at the heart of two speeches I heard recently at a conference in Oxford. Both Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, and Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia at ThomsonReuters, described how fake news was becoming increasingly sophisticated and problematic.
Twitter is a particularly fertile breeding ground, said Barrett, who also described how her friends regularly forward her “news” from Facebook that she has to inform them is untrue. The unhappy corollary is the lack of trust many people have in what’s nowadays dubbed the mainstream media: Barrett cited survey findings that only 40% of people agree the news media does a good job separating fact from fiction.
The fact anyone with a mobile phone can now be a ‘citizen journalist’ exacerbates the problem, the FT’s Barber noted. “The flattening of the digital plane creates the illusion that all content is equal… When people think all content is equal, they assume it’s equally biased or credible. … Facts no longer matter in this parallel universe of ‘alternative facts’.”
Crumbs of comfort
‘Mainstream’ media may draw a couple of crumbs of comfort from the Tony’s Chocolonely stunt. First, the company apparently still understands the value of having real journalists cover its so-called news. They could have hoaxed direct from social media, but opted instead for a fake press release (from parent company Tony’s Factory B.V.).
Second, journalists from key Dutch media may have covered the release in the first instance, but some soon became suspicious when they got no replies to their follow-up calls and could find no financial sources with any knowledge of the purported IPO.
But these are indeed crumbs. Tony’s may have thought they were having a bit of harmless fun. But how on earth are journalists or indeed any of us to get at the truth when even companies lie about themselves? To quote the world’s hoaxer-in-chief, Donald Trump: “Sad!”
Newspapers and magazines are struggling, so it’s getting harder for journalists to find work. Many are moving into public relations. Is that a logical career switch or is it a shift to ‘the dark side’?
That’s the question posed by HR magazine Intermediair in this article ‘Van pers naar persvoorlichter’, which features communications experts including Stampa director Heleen de Graaf.
“It’s quite a natural move,” says Heleen, who joined Stampa in 2011 after a journalism career that included heading the Amsterdam bureau at Dow Jones and 10 years as economics correspondent at NRC Handelsblad. “You know the media, know how journalists work and what they need, and how to prepare a client for interviews.”
In the article, Heleen offers these tips for journalists considering a switch to PR:
“Keep thinking partly as a journalist. That way you’re of great value to your client and you can effectively assess if something is a story for a specific journalist or medium. But you do have to be aware of the internal reasons why a client might want to publish something, and be diplomatic yet robust in your advice.”
“Don’t underestimate how client-focused you need to be. It’s not sufficient just to reject a client’s wishes or suggestions for journalistic reasons; your job is to come up with something that will work. Also be aware that you’ll be operating ‘behind the scenes’. Success in PR is putting your client in the spotlight, not yourself.”
Some people think of content marketing as the hip and trendy cousin of public relations, but there are important differences between the two. And there’s also one key similarity to consider.
Before we begin: content marketing is actually not as new as you might think. In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute, it’s been around since 1732, when Benjamin Franklin published the first Poor Richard’s Almanack to promote his printing business. The modern version of content marketing is now well and truly established.
So how does content marketing compare to PR?
1) Direct versus indirect customer approach
Both content marketing and public relations are all about distributing valuable information. With content marketing, you’re trying to build a direct relationship with your audience. You build trust by providing the quality information your clients need.
Public relations is more about forging an indirect relationship with your audience. You approach the right journalists in the most effective way, so they’ll want to write a story about your organisation, its views, services or employees.
2) Media: owned versus earned
This is a pretty easy one. With content marketing, you publish your content on your own media – a website, newsletter, YouTube channel, podcast, custom magazine or any combination of such channels. By offering your customers the information they really need or actively search for, you’re building a long-term relationship. You are a media owner – hence ‘owned media’.
Public relations ‘earns’ its coverage. Your organisation gains credibility because established newspapers or large news sites are writing about it. It’s the free kudos of third-party endorsement. Basically, you want other people saying you’re doing a great job. That also means you can’t control the message that will eventually be distributed.
3) Broad versus niche message
With PR, you pitch your story – selling the mass media a good reason why they should write about your topic. You have to convince them of the value of your news – it has to serve more than your agenda alone. It has to have wider value and purpose.
As for content marketing, you’re directly focusing on your clients. You give them the useful (and often rather niche) information they’re seeking. In fact, it’s often very individualised copy, for just a small group of people who have a particular question, at each stage of their customer journey – from the awareness of a need to the after-sales service.
The content you produce should address the issues your clients are encountering. So your answers can be highly relevant for existing or potential customers, but uninteresting for a wider audience. In fact, you’re building a dedicated online or print magazine for your customers.
4) Timing of message
For content marketing, it matters less when exactly you publish your blog post or video. That’s because you’re building a long-term relationship with your reader (and the search engines and social media). You’re sharing tips and tricks, or useful information, that have a longer shelf life.
In PR, careful timing is crucial. Your press release has a far greater chance of being covered when it plays into the news of the day. And every minute counts when you’re working to meet the deadline of a journalist.
5) Measuring success
Tracking the success of a PR campaign is mostly done by measuring the number of earned media clippings and impressions. Content marketing, so much of which is digital, tends to be measured more in terms of clicks through to other web pages, how engaged people are with the content, and – ultimately – conversion metrics.
Similarity: journalistic mindset
With oceans of content distributed across multiple channels, the competition for attention has increased hugely. This boosts the importance of delivering valuable and consistent information. You want trustworthy content that stands out and serves a real purpose – it should never just be spam designed to sell.
This is where ajournalistic approachcomes in, using editorial standards, practices and a journalistic mindset. For both PR people and content marketers, it’s essential to find and write the relevant stories for the right channels, and to give the clear and concise information their audience is looking for.
Rotterdam city council hit the headlines last week for the wrong reasons. An eagle-eyed local politician spotted that the city’s new policy document on sport, play and fitness was illustrated with a rather unfortunate playground shot.
Nothing wrong with the smiling couple and ice-lolly-munching boy sitting in the foreground enjoying the sunshine. But what’s behind them gives a whole new meaning to the word photoshoot: a young girl toting a toy machine gun.
“We chose a nice couple for the foreground, but didn’t look carefully enough at the background. We will, of course, replace the photo,” newspaper Algemeen Dagblad quoted a Rotterdam spokesman as saying. (The fact Dutch police have just launched a campaign warning of the danger of look-a-like weapons adds irony.)
Over your shoulder
The lessons are clear for anyone selecting visuals to post on social media, print in a brochure or publish anywhere else. But they go far beyond that, too. The ‘look over your shoulder’ lesson is something we always teach at media trainings: if you’re being interviewed on camera for broadcast, always turn and look to see what’s behind you, in case the backdrop is inappropriate.
Maybe you’re at a trade show and the logo of your main competitor is emblazoned behind you. Or you’re being interviewed about how well your financial services company is doing in front of a painting of gamblers losing at cards.
The photographer or cameraman – or an eagle-eyed member of the public – might delight in the contrast. It’s safe to say that you won’t.
One of the oldest jokes about the media is ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. Never has this been more true – and less of a joke – than over the past few days, as a relentlessly deceitful anti-EU media helped persuade Britons to shoot themselves in both feet.
It’s no coincidence that two of the masterminds behind this omni-shambles were two journalists-turned-politicians, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. They harnessed the power of the soundbite and the gutter press’ disdain for facts and truth to beat PR-turned-PM David Cameron in the Brexit battle.
“If you think rule by professional politicians is bad, wait until journalist politicians take over,” (journalist) Nick Cohen wrote last weekend. “Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game.”
Or as Politico reporter Alex Spence put it:
To recap: in a huge backlash against unaccountable elites, Britain has handed control to a pair of journalists.
The strands to the Brexit fiasco are innumerable and inextricable. But there’s no doubt that journalists past and present played a significant role.
Boris Johnson may only have written for ‘quality’ broadsheets before entering politics, but we should have predicted that he would use tabloid tricks in his Brexit campaign.
He and Gove knew the most effective tactic would be to keep the messages simple and repeat them over and over. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true – if you repeat it enough, via the tabloids, it become true enough for most.
This is why, even after Michael Gove was caught out on TV with his now infamous ”people in this country have had enough of experts” comment, Johnson was able to regain the momentum by reverting to basics. Talking about Brussels forbidding sales of bananas in bunches of more than two was one favourite.
None of this should be a surprise. Journalist-become-politician Johnson has been cooking up anti-EU nonsense – Brussels wants to ban Britain’s favourite chips, standardise condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos-filled headquarters, for instance – since his early reporting days.
“For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU – and the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson,” said former Times foreign editor Martin Fletcher.
Charles Grant, co-founder of EU think-tank the Centre for European Reform (CER), says most of the influential British newspapers – the Sun, Express, Daily Mail and Telegraph – did not just back Leave, but became propaganda sheets for that cause.
Indeed. Just look at this small sample of Daily Express front-page headlines: “Migrants must get benefits, say EU”, “Invasion of gay ethnic immigrant EU shirkers on benefits”, “2m EU migrants grab our jobs”, “Migrants milking Britain’s benefits”, “Proof we can’t stop migrants: five million new EU citizens have been given right to enter Britain”, “Soaring cost of teaching migrant children”, “12m Turks say they’ll come to UK”, “Migrants take all new jobs in Britain”.
Those repugnant slogans – which wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1930s Germany if you replaced the word ‘migrant’ with ‘Jew’ – hit their mark. “I hear that repeated back to me on the doorsteps – whatever was on the front page of the tabs that day,” pro-Remain British MP Jo Cox said just days before her murder on June 16. “It’s getting through.”
Fletcher says EU-bashing is a decades-old problem across the UK press. “Articles that did not bash Brussels, that acknowledged the EU’s achievements, that recognised Britain had many natural allies in Europe and often won important arguments, were almost invariably killed.”
The Brexit communication story is about far more than just the media, of course. It was also about the power of messaging, and storytelling. As my colleague Jim Curtis wrote in his brilliantly, sadly prescient blog in April, Leave had an unfair advantage on this front, with its flag-waving, tub-thumping mantra of national pride, self-belief and destiny. Remain’s fear-focused argument was weighed down in risk and caution; it stirred no passion for staying in Europe.
But why didn’t the media debunk Leave myths? Some say even leading outlets didn’t try hard enough. The CER’s Grant accuses the BBC of a “lamentable” failure to fulfil its legal obligation to inform and to educate. Senior BBC journalists possessed too little EU knowledge and – even more shockingly – feared Brexiter wrath so much that they left unchallenged untrue statements by Leave campaigners, he says. Grant quoted a top BBC journalist as saying: “If we give a Leaver a hard time, we know the Mail or the Sun may pick on us and that that is bad for our careers. But if we are tough on Remainers it might upset the Guardian and that doesn’t matter at all. This affects the way some colleagues handle interviews.”
Other observers say it is wrong to tar the whole BBC and quality print media with the same brush. Serious outlets such as the Financial Times, the Economist and many parts of the BBC did present reasoned facts, they say; the problem was that they were preaching to the converted, and did not reach the Brexit-minded beyond that bubble.
Off the ropes
You might choose to view how much of the UK press covered the referendum campaign as a symptom of journalism’s decline. Personality politics, entertainment and emotion-grabbing soundbites – “Take back control”, “The Turks are coming” – trumped reasoned arguments, journalistic enquiry and deep knowledge.
But just a few years after the phone-hacking scandal shuttered sensationalist Sunday paper the News of the World, and tabloids looked to be on the ropes, the Brexit outcome suggests they’re riding high again. (Though as the dire expert predictions they rubbished play out, let’s hope their readers become just a little less credulous.)
“For several years it has been fashionable to say that the print media have become irrelevant. Indeed, at the start of the campaign one eminent political columnist assured me that they would not make any difference to the referendum result. He was wrong,” noted Grant.
Yet it’s the Leave luminaries who have the most explaining to do. Their frantic backtracking since the referendum might be amusing if it wasn’t so appalling. Nonsense about the NHS, migration controls and more were exposed within mere hours. One prominent pro-Leave MP admitted there was no post-Brexit plan. The emperors-in-waiting have no clothes.
And truth, gingerly picking its way out of the rubble of lies, now risks being buried under countless layers of fresh spin as the journalist politicians set out on the propaganda campaign of their lives, struggling to convince Britons that the bomb they dropped on themselves and Europe was a force for good.
The British public is gearing up to make its biggest political decision in a generation, as the 23 June vote on whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union draws ever closer. Every day, the pressure mounts, as voters are bull-horned by arguments for and against, across all media channels. Today, the debate has moved to a new level of intensity, as the official referendum campaign begins.
Leaving the red-hot politics of the debate to one side, the process shows the critical role communication plays and the power of words to persuade, impassion or simply scare the bamboozled voter.
As a fan of all things European and a co-founder of Stampa – a thoroughly European company with clients from across the EU – I must declare myself as a passionate ‘remain’ voter. However, I fear we are losing the communications battle.
The problem is that, in terms of messaging, the ‘leave’ camp has an unfair advantage. It has a message of action; a flag-waving, tub-thumping mantra of national pride, self-belief and destiny.
It’s an intoxicating – or toxic – cocktail that allows almost anyone to cobble together a rousing exit speech, unencumbered by evidence or justification. The lines are always the same: ‘We are a proud nation. We are successful and powerful enough to stand on our own feet!’ Another favourite is: ‘We are not anti-Europe, we are simply standing up for our sovereignty. It is time to determine our own destiny!’
Little credible intelligence
All the while, the leave camp’s arguments are laced with a good deal of patronising stereotyping: ‘Don’t you think the Germans will still want to sell us their BMWs? Can you imagine the French refusing to sell us their cheese and wine? They need us more than we need them!’
Behind the bluster, there is remarkably little credible intelligence, data or evidence. How could there be? It’s a leap into the unknown. What we do know a lot about are the outcomes if we stay. Here, there is a great deal of evidence to back up the arguments.
Boring old uncle
The problem is, facts are much less fun for the undecided voter to hear. It’s like a boring old uncle telling you to stick with a sensible accountancy course rather than jacking it all in to become a white-water rafting instructor. So, as much as the remain camp dutifully backs its case with economic surveys, business leaders’ stark warnings and gloomy central bank forecasts, the Brexiters simply yawn and shout back ‘scaremongering!’ or ‘Project Fear!’
And this is the problem for the remain campaign. The argument to stay is too weighed down in negativity, risk and caution. It’s not uplifting. Henry V didn’t urge his men once more unto the breach with a careful risk assessment of potential casualties. Remain needs to find its own rhetoric, stirring a passion for staying in Europe, rather than a fear of leaving.
Don’t Leave Me This Way
Maybe social media has the answer – a new campaign called ‘Hug a Brit’ – is going viral as EU citizens unleash a ‘love bomb’ to persuade their British friends to stay. The idea is simple – find a Brit, give them a hug, take a picture and sing ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ by the Communards. OK, that last bit was an exaggeration, but you get the idea. It’s positive, uplifting, and speaks a language of hope.
It’s not too late for the remain camp to find its own ‘love bomb’ and turn this bitter war of words into positive action. If they don’t, Britain is heading for the exit.
When big news breaks these days, it’s become standard for news outlets to launch live blogs – streams of short, frequent updates that capture the action and reaction minute-by-minute – on their websites. Het Financieele Dagblad’s deputy editor Roy op het Veld summed it up recently when he tweeted: “Is er nog een nieuwsmedium zonder liveblog?” (“Is there any news outlet left without a live blog?”)
It was a reminder of journalism’s transformation in recent years. Once, only newswires competed to deliver real-time updates – with news alerts (‘snaps’) timed against rivals to fractions of seconds, with careers made and broken by reporters’ speed. I remember hanging dry-mouthed on the end of a landline for Reuters in the 1990s, waiting side-by-side with Bloomberg and Dow Jones for a company spokeswoman to appear with the full-year results release so we could race to phone the snaps into our newsrooms. In the adjoining meeting room, newspaper journalists sat sipping coffee as they awaited the press conference, calm in the knowledge their once-a-day deadlines were many hours away.
Those days are over. Now, everyone’s deadline is now. All news outlets are news agencies these days – that’s why, as Op het Veld implied, it’s unthinkable for them notto start live blogs when big news breaks. But it goes even further: anyone with a social media account can be their own news agency now. Everyone vies with everyone to broadcast news to the world. On Twitter’s 10-year birthday this week, commentators noted how sharing news has largely replaced the soft personal updates that made up so many early Tweets.
The implications for corporate communicators are immense. Whether you have good news to share, or bad news you’d rather muffle, the world is a live blog that is racing to spread the word.
These are confusing times in the UK media industry. Today sees the launch of the New Day, the UK’s first new national daily paper since the Independent first published in 1986. Yet at the same time, the Independent itself is axing its print edition and going entirely online. Who’s right? Is it a new day for newspapers, or is the sun setting on print?
Back to print
The publishers of the New Day say it’s designed to lure digital readers back to print. Intended to be read in no more than 30 minutes, the New Day deliberately abandons all the norms associated with a daily paper. It has no leader column, or political point of view – and not even a website. It serves up bite-size magazine-style content, with big pictures, infographics and snappy news digests. This is a news and feature snack for the busy reader usually flicking through news on a smartphone.
It will be fascinating to see if it succeeds, but surely the industry’s momentum is heading in the opposite direction. The Guardian, the UK national paper that has made the most successful shift into digital – becoming one of the world’s leading digital news organisations – is now investing so much in online news that many think it will eventually go the way of the Independent. In fact, within 10 or 15 years, some predict that most national newspapers in the UK will be digital-only.
Same challenge for broadcasters
Digital isn’t only revolutionising the written media. TV broadcasters face the same challenge. In the same month that the Independent announced its intention to close its paper, the BBC took its youth-focused TV channel, BBC Three, off-air. The channel is now also digital only – available online and on-demand, but not on TV as we traditionally know it.
Other channels are expected to follow suit. The whole idea of TV programmes being packaged into schedules and broadcast into our homes is being fundamentally threatened by the rise of on-demand broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon. Ten years ago, I was commissioned to write a feature for Broadcast magazine called the ‘New Kings of Content’ – looking at how digital giants outside the traditional broadcast industry, such as Apple, Google and Amazon, were squaring up to television broadcasters with a new model of on-demand content.
As we now gorge on Netflix box-sets and see Top Gear re-launched on Amazon, how true that has turned out to be. Some observers say traditional broadcast channels, just like newspapers, are also in their final years and predict a few of the biggest names will be gone by 2026.
These are seismic shifts in media consumption. A world where old established rules are changing, with media consumed à la carte rather than served as a set menu, demands careful thinking – or rethinking – about the most appropriate manner to tell your story. Content is still king; but it’s being packaged, distributed and consumed in ever-changing ways.
Dutch daily De Volkskrant yesterday joined the illustrious ranks of the New York Times, Harvard Law School and the University of Amsterdam – not to mention its fellow national newspaper Trouw – with the revelation that one of its employees had committed serial plagiary.
As you might expect at a PR agency staffed largely by ex-journalists, a collective gasp went up in Stampa’s newsroom-style Amsterdam office when the story emerged, swiftly followed by a deluge of instant, multi-coloured comment.
The angles are indeed many and various. And the story will no doubt be fully dissected, disputed and debated by the Dutch press – not to mention the unforgiving tribunal of social media – in the hours, days and weeks to come.
What does it say about the newspaper’s controls and mean for its reputation? Didn’t alarm bells sound over a cub reporter who poured out reams of stories in such a short period? Isn’t this primarily a personal tragedy for the ambitious young man whose name, reputation and career could be tainted for life? Don’t the journalism schools teach ethics, let alone basic tenets?
Where do you draw the line?
But there are other questions too. Where does plagiarism start and finish? Where do or should you draw the line? Don’t we all plagiarise to some extent, almost every time we write something? Even at Reuters in the pre-internet, pre-control-C days, we sometimes used to joke about our “microwave journalism”. It’s especially easy in these days of cut and paste. And even harder to detect when you lift a passage in one language and translate it into another.
“What I found is that when you cross the line once it becomes easier and easier to cross it again,” Jayson Blair said in a 2014 interview, 11 years after he plagiarised and invented scores of stories for the New York Times.
‘Pressure to publish’
What seems to link the disgraced NYT and Volkskrant reporters, as well as academics such as the Amsterdam and Harvard professors also found to have plagiarised in recent years, is ‘pressure to publish’. Academia has its own dynamic, but as newsrooms shrink, the ‘space to fill’ balloons and reporters have to compete against every other news organisation in the world and even every person with a smartphone, how surprised should we be at excesses like this?
In its copious account of the deception in May 2003, the New York Times wrote of Jayson Blair (forgive the cut and paste, but at least the source is clearly stated):
“His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer – which allowed him to blur his true whereabouts – as well as round-the-clock access to databases of news articles from which he stole.”
I’m not sure many journalists in 2015 would consider a phone, laptop or Google “tools of deceit”. In fact, they’re tools of the trade for almost anyone who uses social media. To paraphrase (or pilfer?) the famous expression: we are all plagiarists now.
“I wish we could do a press release like this,” our colleague Jim commented wistfully when he saw Netflix’s masterful press release announcing, in Dr. Seuss style, that it’s making a TV show of children’s verse classic ‘Green Eggs and Ham’.
The originality of the rhyming release grabs you right from the start…
Issued from Netflix headquarters.
Delivered straight to all reporters.
…And keeps you reading all the way through to the Sam-I-am-style climax:
You can stream it on a phone.
You can stream it on your own.
You can stream it on TV.
You can stream it globally.
Sense of fun
Most striking of all, though, is the sense of fun. For once, you feel a PR department thoroughly enjoyed creating a press release. Unlike the frustrating writing-by-committee chore that all too often sends journalists lunging for the delete button before they’ve even finished reading the email subject line. (Which is the worst possible outcome for a text spawned by the usual tedious, time-consuming content creation process within most companies.)
So why can’t we all do press releases like the Dr Seuss one? Of course, most companies aren’t Netflix. Most corporate announcements aren’t about the filming of light-hearted children’s classics. Few press releases lend themselves to poems and fun. But almost all of them could do with loosening up a little.
They are all people
The golden rule is one that applies across the communications spectrum: whoever your target readers are, whatever their role, their seniority, their knowledge or interest levels, they are all people. People likely to be sick of dry-as-dust, formulaic press releases that bludgeon them senseless with the usual ragbag of corporate speak and the seemingly compulsory CEO quote starting “I’m excited” or “I’m delighted”.
Stampa’s recent very concise, factual announcement on the promotion of Heleen de Graaf received widespread pick-up. It was probably our most popular press release yet. It wasn’t in rhyme and it wasn’t what you’d call fun, admittedly. But we did opt to omit the ‘delighted and excited’ quotes and just tell it straight.
Maybe that is why it scored?
It didn’t leave the media bored.
The 2013 annual report of insurer Delta Lloyd, written by Stampa, has been shortlisted for the FD Henri Sijthoff prize for outstanding financial reporting. It is the second year running that Delta Lloyd has made the shortlist for the prestigious award. Stampa also wrote the 2012 report.
Delta Lloyd is shortlisted in the midcap and small-cap category for the 61-year-old Sijthoff prize, the highest recognition of financial reporting excellence in the Netherlands. Nominees are judged in areas such as clarity of writing, transparency of information about the company, its strategy, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility.
Amsterdam-headquartered Delta Lloyd offers insurance, pensions, investing and banking service to consumers, small and large companies, multinationals and pension funds.
When it comes to annual reports, there is no-one-size-fits-all format or approach. That became clear at Stampa’s recent Annual Report Event.
Based on the insights of guest speaker Erik van der Merwe, a member of the Sijthoff Prize jury that selects the Netherlands’ best annual report, we’ve compiled 10 tips on how you can turn your annual report into a clear, concrete, concise company calling card.
- The Managing Board and Supervisory Board should set the tone and direction for your annual report –not the finance or investor relations department.
- Be absolutely clear in the report about what your company does: its strategy, goals, achievements, risks and challenges. Be transparent.
- Provide context. Give an overview of your markets, how your company is positioned and what your competitors are doing.
- Use concrete examples and quantitative information to tell your story. This doesn’t mean your report should become even longer. Opt for information that gives real insight into the company’s performance, such as targets and why some were not achieved, rather than repeating information already on the corporate website. (No need for 20 pages on remuneration if it’s explained online). Let the report support your ongoing communication channels, keeping stakeholders informed all year round.
- Include information usually reserved for investor presentations, such the impact of one-off costs or currency fluctuations. It gives a better corporate economic analysis.
- Risk sections in particular should be more quantitative, for example, by including risk scenarios and their possible outcomes.
- Give details of client and employee satisfaction surveys. Many companies conduct them, but what specific things does your company measure and how do you use this information? Customer evaluations in particular can indicate problems that need addressing.
- Explain why certain decisions were made during the year, such as an acquisition, divestment or new bank loan, and whether those made in previous years have had the desired outcome.
- Be open about the people steering your company. What do they look at internally when making decisions? Be more detailed about management changes and succession planning.
- Supervisory Board reports in particular are often inadequate. Don’t just list the number of times the members met during the year, but mention what they discussed and how they’re addressing issues. Provide details of the Supervisory Board’s self-assessment .Do the members have expertise and experience that is relevant to your business or sector?
Transparency, said Erik van der Merwe, has never destroyed a company. “But lack of transparency has.”
Van der Merwe (photo left), jury member for the Netherlands’ coveted Sijthoff annual report prize, was one of three expert speakers at Stampa’s Annual Report Event last week. Sharing the podium – and some lively repartee – with him were corporate governance guru Paul Frentrop (right) and Paul Koster, new head of the Dutch shareholders’ association VEB (centre).
The theme was Annual reports: yearly headache or company calling card? and the speakers shared illuminating insights into the why, how, what and ‘for whom’ of annual reports as well as a mass of practical advice.
Comparing a 60-page report from 1973 with a recent 400-page tome, Paul Frentrop said annual reports had become illegible, unintelligible and primarily served internal control purposes.
“The closing of the book year is the most dangerous time for a company,” he noted, citing several accounting scandals that broke just before companies’ annual reports came out.
Firms should use annual reports as external communication tools to explain clearly to the outside world “what’s really keeping the company busy,” he advised the audience of corporate communications and investor relations professionals at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ concert hall.
That plea for shorter, clearer, more readable reports was echoed by Van der Merwe. Rather than a necessary evil or box-ticking exercise, Van der Merwe said annual reports were a golden opportunity to give insights into a company’s strategy, decision-making, performance, dilemmas and much, much more.
Offering the guests a series of practical tips, Van der Merwe said annual reports should be more concrete, meaningful and succinct. Much could be deleted, shortened (“Twenty pages on remuneration? That makes me sick”) or placed instead on the company’s website.
The most important word, he said, was transparency. “For years, the Sijthoff jury has been advocating greater transparency in annual reports. We’ve partly succeeded – but we’re not there yet.”
“Why the secrecy?”
VEB chief Paul Koster also urged companies to open up more. He argued that annual reports are useful snapshots in time yet are often too little, too late in today’s dynamic digital world.
“You can’t wait for the annual report. The world is moving too fast,” said Koster. “I’d like companies to communicate more regularly about how things are going – maybe even issuing trading updates every month. Why the secrecy? Investors want to know.”
The talks triggered a lively discussion among the audience and speakers on areas including integrated reporting and the relative virtues of different annual report formats. Opinions varied widely and everyone came away with substantial food for thought rather than (thank goodness) cookie-cutter solutions.
One thing’s for sure: we at Stampa endorse the call for clear, compelling, concise annual reports as part of a consistent regular communications process. Whether you see your annual report (wrongly) as a headache or (rightly) as a calling card, good communication is a year-round necessity.
An often-heard complaint from journalists nowadays is that they don’t have time to attend an event, meet in person, or ‘do lunch’. Quite simply, they can’t get away from their desks. With media outlets now serving more channels – print, online, broadcast, social – and content generated by fewer editorial staff, it’s not surprising. The deadlines just keep coming as writers feed their hungry online news machines 24/7.
It makes me laugh to think about how it used to be. Back in the early 1990s when I first started as a journalist on an international trade magazine, we ran regular country reports. To research our material – in those pre-internet and even email days – our small team took turns to travel to the countries we reported on and paid personal visits to the companies we had to talk to.
It was planes, trains, automobiles, appointment sheets, a lot of maps and much time getting lost. The Benelux special report meant a five-day trip to Rotterdam, Antwerp and Zeebrugge (often given to the most junior team member), while the Australia, US West Coast, South America or South East Asia reports involved a two-week jaunt to the likes of Rio, San Francisco, Manila and Sydney. Needless to say, the editor bagged these for himself.
In today’s online world, this simply wouldn’t happen. Information is gathered over the phone, Skype, email and Google. Forget sushi with a CEO in Tokyo – today’s young reporter travels no further than the coffee machine.
So, to connect with this less fortunate and more harried generation of reporters, we need to think of different solutions, that suit them and fit with the online demands of their day.
Stampa recently demonstrated one way of doing this with London client Sports Revolution, who had conducted insightful and entertaining research into the marketing social media successes and failures of the FIFA World Cup. We decided to engage journalists in the story in a way that would involve the least time and disruption, but with maximum relevance. A live web chat, involving the Sports Revolution social media team and four journalists, each logging in from their offices at lunchtime, was the perfect solution. We served them a host of visual examples, supported by expert comment, and encouraged a lively online debate. It was fun, got good results and no one travelled more than six feet.
It may be less glamorous and garner fewer air miles than the editorial ways of old, but that’s the price of progress.
Many new graduates may be taking the summer to contemplate their next step now that their student days are over. Having embarked on the world of work myself recently, may I suggest a career in PR?
“PR,” I hear you ask. “What’s that?”
Since I left university, the questions from well-meaning relatives about career, love life and long-term plans have been coming thick and fast. But by far the most common one, I find, is explaining what I do for a living.
“So where are you working/what do you do?”
“I work in PR.”
People react to this in a variety of ways, but few really understand. People want a nice one-liner. They want the essence of the occupation distilled in an easy-to-digest soundbite. You can see them thinking of a nephew who is a doctor. He heals people. A cousin is a journalist. She writes for a paper. Why can’t public relations be so easily defined?
Perhaps it is because PR is a mixture of so many skills and services. Some clients need to protect their reputations, others have to create them. Some clients are required to be reactive, some proactive. As a result, PR professionals wear many different caps. For a couple of hours you might become an expert on the Venezuelan irrigation system or corporate tax evasion in the cardboard box manufacturing industry. On a given day, you could spend the morning writing a well-argued opinion piece for a quality financial daily, before spending the afternoon calling up 30 journalists to secure an interview with a client. Sometimes it’s all about research and finding out as much as possible about a topic or a company or what people are saying about your client – or their competitors.
The result is interesting , varied, but still hard to define to your aunt over afternoon tea. After several attempts, I feel I have hit on the answer. My new go-to response is “public relations is all about helping organisations communicate, so they are better understood and their reputation is protected.”
OK, it still doesn’t trip off the tongue, but it just about – or maybe not really at all – sums up the rich variety of the never boring world of PR.
Alex Sword joined Stampa in November 2013 as an Account Executive in our London office. He recently graduated from the University of Exeter with a BA Hons degree in History.
The European Court of Justice’s controversial ruling about the ‘right to be forgotten’ online is now in force. And what is one of the first examples we see of it being used to whitewash reputations? A six-year-old article by the BBC’s Robert Peston on a fallen Wall Street banker has been removed by Google from its search results.
And we have also seen the first businesses pop up to help people disappear into the online ether. For example, Reputation VIP allows customers to ‘control their online reputation’.
All of this has worrying implications for our industry. It raises a false impression that this most unworkable rule provides some kind of safety net for misbehaving corporations or loose-tongued executives – a chance to go back and redact unwanted comments or events from your public profile. Well, it doesn’t. As Robert Peston pointed out to millions of his followers today, you only have to search for his story on Google.com, as opposed to Google.co.uk, and ta da…there it is.
The best way to treat this rule is also a lesson in how to manage your corporate reputation. Be proactive, not reactive. Rather than going back and desperately trying to wipe mistakes from the past, isn’t it better to avoid making them in the first place?
It’s the same as in a media interview: never say anything that you wouldn’t want to be quoted on. Don’t wait for a potentially damaging quote to appear in print and then try to have it struck from the record. Saying the right thing…and doing the right thing….will create a living history that will enrich your reputation in the real and online world.
There’s a good marketing mantra on this: ‘a brand is a promise’, meaning that everything a company says, and more importantly, does, should deliver on the values and promises of its brand. OK, no one is perfect, but surely going back and trying to brush wrongs under the carpet isn’t – by definition – a way forward?
So, it must be hoped that the corporate world doesn’t latch onto the ‘right to be forgotten’ as another tool in its communications armoury. Fallen popstars and disgraced politicians are one thing, but when we get into the realm of airbrushing online histories in the name of corporate reputation, then we have surely taken a wrong turn.
Oscar Wilde wrote that “the only thing in the world worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”. Or as we might say today, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But is it really immaterial what others say about you? Or the words you actually use?
US label Abercrombie and Fitch gained notoriety for only wanting “cool, good-looking people” to wear its clothes. It once even offered to pay a Jersey Shore cast member to not wear its clothing while filming the MTV reality show because they did not fit the ‘cool kid’ profile. Yet hipsters and the not-so-hip alike continue to flock to its stores. For this brand, there is indeed no such thing as bad publicity.
Closer to Stampa’s home, a brand that also seems to thrive on negative publicity is Dutch high street clothing retailer CoolCat. It regularly makes headlines for the explicit and often misspelt English obscenities on its T-shirts – aimed at six to 18-year-olds.
CoolCat says it “is always looking to push the limits”, and criticism of its T-shirt slogans hasn’t hurt sales. Most of its young clientele don’t seem to mind the crude language – perhaps they have no idea how offensive it actually is. But recently CoolCat overstepped the mark.
A special-edition T-shirt for the football World Cup, showing the Brazilian flag under the word ‘merda’ – a crude Portuguese insult of the players’ prowess – had to be withdrawn from sale after outraged Brazilians took to the streets in neighbouring Luxembourg to protest.
The negative headlines don’t seem to be hurting the brand – and are perhaps even enhancing its edgy image. What could damage it in the long run, however, is if its Dutch-speaking customers improve their understanding of English and realise what their T-shirts actually say.
While most Dutch people are relatively fluent in English, understanding the nuances of the language is a different story. Each culture has its own taboos and these aren’t always obvious to outsiders. In the Netherlands, where curses often relate to illnesses, it might be rare to see a Dutch person sporting anything emblazoned with the word ‘cancer’ but the English ‘f-word’ hardly raises an eyebrow.
That’s why it’s crucial for corporate communicators to involve native speakers when creating messages for an international audience. Non-native speakers often think their level of English is high enough; but only a native writer can produce a flawless text that takes account of the cultural subtleties and leaves no room for misunderstanding.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not understanding what you are saying.