‘If there isn’t a war on, the economy is the only story’

The trade magazine C of Logeion, the Dutch professional association for communication professionals, interviewed our director Marina Millington-Ward for its cover story. The author of the interview is Wim Datema, and the photos were taken by Eran Oppenheimer.

With Logeion’s permission, we were allowed to publish the interview below. The Dutch original can be found below the English translation. To see the full feature and pictures click here.

French IT company Sopra Steria is acquiring Dutch Ordina for €518 million. The Pharming shares made a 33 per cent jump in price as a second drug from the Leiden-based biotech company has been allowed to enter the US market. The European Commission comes to the rescue of European consumers with an attack on greenwashing.

These are just a few headlines from Het Financieele Dagblad in March 2023. They touch on the profession of financial communication. A world in which Marina Millington-Ward feels like a fish in water. We talk to her about what is still uncharted territory for many of her colleagues.

Millington-Ward is co-founder and co-owner of agency Stampa, specialising in financial and corporate communications and is based in Amsterdam, London and Brussels. From the beginning, her career has been all about financial communications. With a degree in Law – supplemented by a top degree in Economics – in her pocket, she managed to fulfil a dream in 1995 and started working as a financial reporter at Bloomberg. The company is renowned worldwide for its economic reporting and information. After that, Millington-Ward’s roles included head of Investor Relations at Buhrmann, financial analyst at Deutsche Bank and journalist/economics coordinator for NOS news broadcast.

Being where the action is

Asked why she is so drawn to financial communications, Millington-Ward quotes Mike Bloomberg: ‘If there is no war, economics is the only story’. It may sound a little overblown she says, but, “I’ve seen at NOS that it’s really true. And I like to be where the action is, so with my economics and journalism background and analytical mindset, a career in financial communications makes pretty good sense. Follow the numbers if you really want to know how things are. That’s what I do.” Returning briefly to the start of her career, Millington-Ward emphasises how important a good mentor has been for her. In her case, that was James Ludden of Bloomberg London. “At Bloomberg, I was thrown to the wolves. But James knew a lot about complicated financial topics, and I was able to spend a lot of time with him, which was golden.”

Naming pain points

With Stampa, Millington-Ward helps companies communicate their financial-economic development or developments with financial impact. The four founders were driven by their experience in financial journalism when they started the agency 15 years ago. “We saw that financial communication could be better. Less focus on output, such as press releases and presentations, but more on the process leading up to it. The biggest added value you can offer as a consultant in this profession is seeing and naming pain points earlier than others. To do so, you have to dare to ask the right questions.” Incidentally, Millington-Ward and her colleagues got in at the right time. It was November 2008, Lehman Brothers had just gone bankrupt, and the credit crunch broke out in full force. “It was a bizarre time, when whole departments at clients flew out. Those days really don’t need to come back for me.”

Too often people in senior management don’t get to hear the ordinary concerns any more

Amsterdam, London and Brussels

Few agencies in the Netherlands have a focus on financial communications. Stampa calls itself the leading independent agency in the Netherlands. Other agencies usually fall under a larger international group. They are often London-based firms, which also have an agency here. Stampa itself started with three partners in Amsterdam and one partner in the financial heart of London. A presence in Brussels was later added, due to the increasing importance of the European Union. Its clients are mainly large international companies, whose headquarters are also often located outside the Netherlands. “That does require extra attention,” says Millington-Ward. “When we work for the Benelux country manager, for example, we also want to see the global strategy. If the messaging for the Benelux deviates from that, then we will enter into a discussion about it.”

Sustainable, long-term relationships

For Millington-Ward, a sustainable, long-term relationship with the client is an important basis for doing good work. “As a consultant at strategic level, you must have a good understanding of what a company is about. It’s a big advantage if you have been around for a while and have a high level of involvement. We secure this through an approach in which we work together intensively. We go through an annual cycle with each client. It starts with a kick-off, in which the communication strategy for the year is defined. After that, we sit down with the client’s team every fortnight or month. We then also prepare the annual and semi-annual presentations of the figures.”

Investor relations

Financial communication is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as investor relations. Yet they are really two different disciplines, she explains. “Investor relations focuses purely on investor relations, and often falls under the chief financial officer (CFO). Financial communication is broader and touches all stakeholders of a company. Investor relations also does involve messaging, but in numbers. Still, I don’t see how you can separate one from the other. So in practice, you have to make sure there is good cooperation so that all communication is coherent.”

Journalistic mindset is important

With nearly three decades of experience in the profession, Millington-Ward must have a good idea of what makes someone a good financial communications consultant. Can she outline a profile?

“You don’t have to come from journalism, but a journalistic mindset is important. Being independent and daring to ask tough questions of the CEO. There’s an English expression for that: ‘speaking truth to power’. Too often, people in senior management don’t get to hear the ordinary concerns any more. But, to be able to ask the right questions, you need to be analytically strong. And also really financially literate. I sometimes do more with spreadsheets than with words. You have to understand why an analyst has done a certain calculation. In our profession, therefore, taking a financial training course is quite normal. We also develop our own training courses at Stampa, such as communicating on financial markets.”

ESG and greenwashing misery

Millington-Ward speaks passionately about her field and the developments she sees. Such as the increasing use of social media, and with it the visualisation of messages. But the development that is closest to her heart is the increasing weight that ESG is gaining. “ESG is increasingly becoming the standard by which companies are judged. You can see it in large asset managers who no longer invest in companies that perform poorly on ESG. And the EU is also becoming more stringent, with the recent crackdown on greenwashing. Personally, I welcome the rise of ESG, but it is also professionally difficult. Companies have to be extremely careful not to get caught up in greenwashing misery, with even the risk of lawsuits. The facts and figures must therefore be right. This means that ESG is now part of the ‘hard’ side of the business and, based on the principle of integrated reporting, is also reflected in the annual reports. This also makes it logical for us, as specialists in financial communication, to deal with this. It requires the same attitude and approach.”

Dutch version below

‘Als er geen oorlog is, is economie het enige verhaal’

Het Franse IT-bedrijf Sopra Steria neemt voor € 518 miljoen het Nederlandse Ordina over. Het aandeel Pharming maakte een koerssprong van 33 procent, omdat een tweede medicijn van dit Leidse biotechbedrijf de Amerikaanse markt op mag. De Europese Commissie schiet de Europese consument te hulp met een aanval op greenwashing.

Het zijn zomaar een paar koppen uit het Financieel Dagblad van maart 2023. Ze raken het vak van financiële communicatie. Een wereld waarin Marina Millington-Ward zich als een vis in het water voelt. Met haar spreken we over wat voor veel vakgenoten nog onontgonnen terrein is.

Millington-Ward is medeoprichter en medeeigenaar van bureau Stampa, gespecialiseerd in financiële en bedrijfscommunicatie en met ruim twintig mensen gevestigd in Amsterdam, Londen en Brussel. Haar carrière staat al vanaf het begin volledig in het teken van financiële communicatie.

Met een afgeronde studie Rechten – aangevuld met een topstudie Economie – op zak, lukte het haar in 1995 een droom waar te maken en startte zij als financial reporter bij Bloomberg. Het bedrijf dat wereldwijd gerenommeerd is vanwege haar economische verslaggeving en informatievoorziening. Daarna was Millington-Ward onder meer hoofd Investor Relations bij Buhrmann, financieel analist bij Deutsche Bank en journalist/ coördinator Economie voor het NOS-journaal.

Zijn waar de actie is

Gevraagd naar waarom zij zo aangetrokken wordt door financiële communicatie haalt Millington-Ward een uitspraak van Mike Bloomberg aan: ‘Als er geen oorlog is, is economie het enige verhaal’. Het klinkt misschien wat gechargeerd zegt ze, maar: “Ik heb bij de NOS gezien dat het ook echt zo is. En ik mag graag zijn waar de actie is, dus met mijn economische en journalistieke achtergrond en analytische instelling is een loopbaan in financiële communicatie dan best logisch. Follow the numbers, als je echt wilt weten hoe dingen zitten. Dat is wat ik doe.” Nog even terugkomend op de start van haar carrière benadrukt Millington-Ward hoe belangrijk een goede mentor voor haar is geweest. In haar geval was dat James Ludden van Bloomberg London. “Bij Bloomberg ben ik voor de wolven gegooid. Maar James wist veel van financieel technische onderwerpen en ik kon veel samen met hem optrekken, dat was goud waard.”

Benoemen van pijnpunten

Met Stampa helpt Millington-Ward bedrijven communiceren over hun financieel-economische ontwikkeling en ontwikkelingen met financiële impact. De vier oprichters werden gedreven door hun ervaring in de financiële journalistiek toen ze vijftien jaar geleden het bureau begonnen. “We zagen dat de financiële communicatie beter kon. Minder focus op output, zoals persberichten en presentaties, maar meer op het proces daaraan voorafgaand. De grootste meerwaarde die je als adviseur in dit vak kunt bieden, is het eerder dan anderen zien en benoemen van pijnpunten. Daarvoor moet je dan wel de juiste vragen durven stellen.” Overigens viel Millington-Ward met haar collega’s bij de start wel met de neus in de spreekwoordelijke boter. Het was november 2008, Lehman Brothers was net failliet gegaan en de kredietcrisis brak in volle omvang uit. “Het was een bizarre tijd, waarin hele afdelingen bij klanten eruit vlogen. Die tijd hoeft van mij echt niet terug te komen.”

Te vaak krijgen mensen in het hogere management de gewone zorgen niet meer te horen

Amsterdam, Londen en Brussel

Er zijn weinig bureaus in Nederland die een focus op financiële communicatie hebben. Stampa noemt zichzelf het leidende onafhankelijke bureau in Nederland. Andere bureaus vallen doorgaans onder een grotere internationale groep. Vaak gaat het om Londense bedrijven, die hier ook een bureau hebben. Stampa begon zelf met drie partners in Amsterdam en een partner in het financiële hart van Londen. Later kwam daar Brussel bij, vanwege het toenemende belang van de Europese Unie. De klanten zijn vooral grote internationale bedrijven, waarvan het hoofdkantoor ook vaak buiten Nederland zit. “Dat vraagt wel extra aandacht”, zegt Millington-Ward. “Als we bijvoorbeeld voor de landenmanager Benelux werken, willen we ook de global strategy inzien. Wijkt de messaging voor de Benelux daarvan af, dan gaan we daar het gesprek over aan.”

Duurzame, lange relaties

Voor Millington-Ward is een duurzame, lange relatie met de opdrachtgever een belangrijke basis om goed werk te kunnen leveren. “Als adviseur op strategisch niveau moet je goed snappen waar het om gaat bij een bedrijf. Dan is het een groot voordeel als je er al langer rondloopt en er een hoge mate van betrokkenheid is. Dat borgen we door een aanpak, waarin we intensief samenwerken. We doorlopen samen met onze klant een jaarcyclus. Dat begint met een kick-off, waarin de communicatiestrategie voor het jaar wordt vastgelegd. Daarna zitten we iedere twee weken of maand met het team van de klant om tafel. We bereiden dan ook de jaarlijkse en halfjaarlijkse presentaties van de cijfers voor.”

Investor relations

Financiële communicatie wordt soms in een adem genoemd met investor relations. Toch zijn het echt twee verschillende disciplines, legt ze uit. “Investor relations richt zich puur op de relatie met investeerders, en valt vaak onder de chief financial officer (CFO). Financiële communicatie is breder en raakt alle stakeholders van een bedrijf. Bij investor relations gaat het ook wel om messaging, maar dan in cijfers. Toch zie ik niet hoe je het een los van het ander kunt zien. Dus in de praktijk moet je zorgen voor een goede samenwerking, zodat de uitingen ook samenhangen.”

Journalistieke mindset belangrijk

Met haar bijna drie decennia ervaring in het vak moet Millington-Ward wel een goed beeld hebben van wat iemand een goede adviseur financiële communicatie maakt. Kan ze een profiel schetsen? “Je hoeft niet uit de journalistiek te komen, maar een journalistieke mindset is wel belangrijk.

Onafhankelijk zijn en moeilijke vragen durven stellen aan de CEO. Daar is een Engelse uitdrukking voor: ‘speaking truth to power’. Te vaak krijgen mensen in het hogere management de gewone zorgen niet meer te horen. Om de goede vragen te kúnnen stellen, moet je overigens ook analytisch sterk zijn. En ook wel echt financieel onderlegd. Ik doe soms meer met spreadsheets dan met woorden. Je moet snappen waarom een analist een bepaalde som heeft gemaakt. In ons vak is het volgen van een opleiding op financieel vlak dan ook heel normaal. Ook ontwikkelen we bij Stampa zelf trainingen, zoals communiceren rond financiële markten.”

ESG en greenwash-ellende

Millington-Ward spreekt gepassioneerd over haar vakgebied en over de ontwikkelingen die ze daarin ziet. Zoals de toenemende inzet van sociale media, en daarmee ook visualisatie van boodschappen. Maar de ontwikkeling die haar ook persoonlijk het meest na aan het hart ligt is het groter wordende gewicht dat ESG krijgt. “ESG wordt meer en meer de norm, waar bedrijven op worden beoordeeld. Je ziet het aan grote vermogensbeheerders die niet meer beleggen in bedrijven die slecht presteren op ESG. En ook de EU wordt steeds stringenter, met als laatste ontwikkeling de aanpak van greenwashing. Persoonlijk ben ik blij met de opkomst van ESG, maar het is vakmatig ook moeilijk. Bedrijven moeten oppassen dat ze niet in de greenwash-ellende terechtkomen, met zelfs het risico op rechtszaken. De feiten en cijfers moeten daarom kloppen. Dat maakt dat ESG inmiddels onderdeel is van de ‘harde’ kant van het bedrijf en vanuit het principe van integrated reporting ook in de jaarverslagen terugkomt. Daarmee is het ook logisch dat we als specialisten in financiële communicatie ons hiermee bezighouden. Het vraagt om dezelfde houding en aanpak.”

Inside view: what’s it really like to work at Stampa?

I’ve been with Stampa for just under four months now, and I feel lucky to say that I’m really enjoying my first job. Yet I didn’t fully know what to expect before I started, having had no prior experience in corporate communications or PR and having struggled to find any insight into what day-to-day work might look like. I thought it’d be helpful to share my perspective as a newcomer to the industry, and to Stampa, for those looking to follow suit.

As a humanities graduate my background is rooted in writing. In my post-uni job hunt, I was eager to find a career path where I could apply my existing skillset, figuring that communications work would be the most natural option.

Writing is foundational

As it turns out, writing is foundational to everything I do here. I work on content across a variety of mediums – from internal newsletters to external blog posts, videos and infographics – for a variety of clients. I’m also involved on the PR side, securing coverage for our clients in all types of press outlets.

For instance, in an average day I might be writing a white paper on the green energy transition, a pitch to a journalist on healthcare technology, or a script for a social media video.

Large breadth of subjects

That’s the benefit of working for an agency: you get to serve numerous companies operating in different industries, meaning you’re never tied down to one specific area. With such a large breadth of subjects to write about, having a curious attitude carries you far. And because businesses are keen to engage with the hot topics of our times, the work consistently feels relevant and is always interesting.

International presence

To speak about Stampa specifically, having studied languages at university, I was searching for a company with an international presence. It’s great to work with colleagues in London, Amsterdam and Brussels and clients all over Europe and in the U.S. The ability to travel or work abroad is unique for an agency our size. It’s not always easy to find roles where you’re able to use more than just your native language, so I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to put my French skills into practice.

Thinking like a journalist can help us all communicate better

Whether you’re communicating with employees, managers, customers – or just about anyone in any life or work situation – it’s crucial to get your message across effectively. If you don’t, you’re unlikely to get the action or reaction you want. To communicate better, we can all benefit from taking a leaf out of the journalist’s book.

Journalists specialise in capturing attention and powerfully telling compelling stories that cut through the information overload. A good journalist can turn whatever topic they cover – however complex, dry or niche – into sparkling copy that informs, engages and often entertains.

Reporters use the so-called five Ws – also known as the five Ws and one H – to make sure they capture all essential elements in their stories. And being guided by Who, What, Why, When, Where and How can enhance everyone’s strategic and tactical communication skills.

Here’s what to keep in mind before you start writing (or talking!):

  1. Who is your audience? This is the essential starting point. Before putting pen to paper, put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re addressing. What do they already know? What do they care about? Which factors will influence their level of understanding or interest?
  2. Why are you communicating? What do you want to achieve? What do you want your audience to think/feel/do in response? Why should they listen and care about what you’re saying? All this needs to be clear if you are to grab and hold their attention.
  3. What is your story? Exactly what do you want to say? You’d be amazed how often people haven’t even clarified their message to themselves, let alone for the recipient. Also key: what is the new, interesting angle that will hook your audience and keep them engaged?
  4. Where are you communicating your message? Think carefully about the most effective and appropriate ‘vehicle’. Which communication channel and medium fit best? Is it a press release, opinion piece, advertorial, white paper, email, employee newsletter, speech, poster, or social media update?
  5. When should you communicate? Timing is crucial. Whether you’re announcing news publicly, addressing employees or informing clients, when is the right moment to do this? What’s the best time to give the information they need, so you can make the impact you want?
  6. How will you address your audience? What is the right format (text / photo / video / graphic / other) and tone of voice? Regardless of the tone or format you choose, strong communication always means using clear, simple, jargon-free language.

Nowadays, we’re all creators and consumers of communication. No doubt you’ve been on the receiving end of too much complex, confusing, irrelevant or boring communication, so you’ll know how counter-productive it can be. Keeping that critical perspective when you’re the communicator – and always remembering the magic 5Ws – will help you cut through the clutter and make an impact.

CDP turns annual awards into TV show

One of the most important events in the sustainable business calendar took place this week, with the CDP Europe Awards 2021 on 2 March. Every year, this brings together top-level business and political decision-makers to discuss how the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal can be achieved and rewards the world’s greenest businesses and cities with the CDP A List.

Communications around sustainability are a key specialism for Stampa, so we’re proud to be one of CDP’s PR agency partners in Europe, supporting it in the Benelux. As we discussed preparations for the 2021 Europe Awards, we were intrigued to hear how CDP plans to stage its high-profile event during lockdown.

By now, we’re all used to events moving online. But let’s face it, compared to the real thing, they are mostly a disappointing experience. Having staged its previous annual awards in illustrious locations such as France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs in Paris and Brussels Town Hall, CDP didn’t want its biggest European event to suffer ‘death by Zoom’. So it’s chosen a novel tactic: teaming up with Euronews, Europe’s most-watched news channel, to produce the 2021 awards for television, open to everyone and free of charge.

Euronews is producing a 90-minute show that CDP broadcasted at 16.00 CET on 2 March on cdpeuropeawards2021.cdp.net. Filmed in Lyon, the programme featured contributions from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and Ambroise Fayolle, Vice President of the European Investment Bank. Euronews also produced a 26-minute edit of the award show to broadcast on its network.

“The urgent need to decarbonise our economy and secure our natural resources has always helped us attract top-flight speakers to the CDP Awards, backed by strong research based on CDP data. Our agenda is particularly important this year, as we focus on the urgent need for a green recovery after COVID-19,” says Maxfield Weiss, Executive Director of CDP Europe. “With this in mind, we wanted to maximise the impact of our awards with a different approach. Our topics are top of mind for business and political leaders across Europe, so we think a TV news programme is a fitting way to achieve maximum impact. We’re delighted to be working with Euronews and look forward to people tuning in.’’

Fake news as publicity stunt? Sad!

Lying about honest chocolate

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!”

Stampa’s Heleen de Graaf in Intermediair: “Success in PR is putting your client in the spotlight”

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.”

Five differences between content marketing and public relations (and one important similarity)

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.

Beware the photo shoot

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.

Brexit: journalists have taken over the asylum

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.

Going bananas

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.

Propaganda sheets

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.”

Debunking myths

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.

Fear, facts & fiction in the EU war of words

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.

Communications battle

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.

Unfair advantage

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.

All the world’s a live blog

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.

The newspaper is dead. Long live the newspaper!

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.

Digital-only newspapers

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.

Careful rethinking

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.

We are all plagiarists now

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.

Collective gasp

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.

Press releases by committee? The end result is seldom pretty

“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.

Delta Lloyd annual report shortlisted again for Sijthoff prize

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.

How to write a better annual report

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.

  1. The Managing Board and Supervisory Board should set the tone and direction for your annual report –not the finance or investor relations department.
  2. Be absolutely clear in the report about what your company does: its strategy, goals, achievements, risks and challenges. Be transparent.
  3. Provide context. Give an overview of your markets, how your company is positioned and what your competitors are doing.
  4. 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.
  5. Include information usually reserved for investor presentations, such the impact of one-off costs or currency fluctuations. It gives a better corporate economic analysis.
  6. Risk sections in particular should be more quantitative, for example, by including risk scenarios and their possible outcomes.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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?

“Twenty pages on remuneration? That makes me sick”

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.

Beyond box-ticking

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.

Forget sushi in Tokyo

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.

A graduate’s guide to starting in PR

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.

PR should rise above the right to be forgotten

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.

Deliberately damning or lost in translation?

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.

Subtle nuances

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.