‘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.”

Lights, camera …audio? How not to spoil a good video with bad sound

In these times of home-bound working, many leaders are using video messages to communicate with their employees. To hit the right note, they carefully craft their message, find a favourable angle, and assemble their bookshelf backdrop. But is anyone thinking about sound?

To hear top tips on how to get the best sound for your home-made video, we spoke to a leading sound engineer, Joost de Glopper, owner of Mixed by Joost audio productions.

“In your video message, you will want to be calm and show leadership. But if your sound is off, there’s noise in the background, or you are difficult to understand, what kind of message does this send? You want the total picture – video and audio – to support what you’re saying,” says Joost.

Without access to professional audio equipment, however, what can home-bound leaders do to get their message across loud and clear?

There are some simple tricks you can apply to improve the sound quality of your recordings:

  1. Find the quietest – not the prettiest – spot in the house. Being next to an open window might offer favourable lighting, yet if you’re close to a busy road, noisy neighbours or school playground, that’s not going to help your sound.
  2. Be aware of ambient noises. Avoid being near appliances, like the fan of your desktop computer, a running dishwasher, or air conditioning.
  3. Avoid rooms with hard and large uninterrupted surfaces like big windows and hard wooden floors. Ideally, look for a space with rugs, carpeting, bookshelves, and angled surfaces that reduce echoing.
  4. Clap your hands. If you hear a lot of reverberation, this is a clear indicator this is not the place you want to be.
  5. If you can’t find an echo-free spot, put a duvet or pillows around you (out of camera shot) to soften the sound. Did you know voice-over artists sometimes record themselves under a duvet?
  6. Consider investing in an external microphone. You can get a decent one without breaking the bank. Just a simple lapel mic that plugs into your phone will easily be 20 times better than any built-in microphone on your smartphone or video camera.

Ultimately, says Joost, the best thing is to listen. “Just take a moment in silence to become aware of the sounds around you. There might be more than you think.” In the age of video messages, it’s time for audio to take centre stage.

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.

No such thing as ‘off the record’

“You can publish this, but you didn’t hear it from me”.

“I’m only telling you this to help you understand what’s going on; you can’t use any of it.”

“This is how it really is, but I would never say so in public.”

Talking to the press without wanting anything to be published may sound paradoxical ‒ but it happens every day. An ‘off the record’ conversation can provide context, background about a transaction that’s in the works, or help ensure a complex matter is accurately reported.

But it’s a dangerous game. Even with the best will in the world, the journalist can all too easily genuinely mistake what’s being said on the record and what’s not. And why would you want to share confidential information with someone whose job is to sell news?

Malice or misunderstanding?

Journalists have various ways of dealing with ‘off the record’. Some may take care not to publish anything they’re told in confidence. Others won’t want to keep information secret if they think it’s in the public interest to know. Adding a juicy off-the-record tidbit can help a reporter secure the all-important scoop or front-page splash.

Sometimes reporters get pressured by their editor to add information you’d rather not see in print. And often a journalist will get another source to confirm the information on the record (which may have been your strategy in the first place – but that’s another story).

The microphone is always on

How about formal interviews with journalists or press conferences? Even experienced interviewees make the common mistake of thinking that they’re only really on the record once they’re sitting across from the reporter, the notebook comes out, the microphone goes on and the ‘official’ questions begin.
Everyone who’s been a journalist – including all of us at Stampa ‒ have seen that go wrong (or right, in the eyes of the scoop-hungry reporter). The CEO who says too much in the lift on the way up to the press conference, during small talk pre- or post-interview, or at a social event outside working hours. Not to mention the executive who drops his voice during the interview and says “Don’t write this down…”

Never forget: anything and everything you say to a journalist can eventually appear in print – even when (you think) the microphone or recording device is switched off, or they’re not taking written notes. There are legion examples of unguarded comments to friendly journalists becoming headline news.

If you really must…

So make sure everything you say to a journalist is information you don’t mind sharing with the rest of the world. If you still feel it’s absolutely imperative to go off the record, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t mention anything that you can’t risk becoming public knowledge
  • Ensure the journalist is entirely clear about what can and cannot be published
  • Ask to review the article before publication as a condition for speaking off the record.

…but better not to

The bigger picture, though, is that telling a journalist is akin to making a public announcement, even if they don’t use the information right away. The bottom line: there’s no such thing as ‘off the record’. If you really want to keep something out of the news, keep your mouth shut.

Is it me who’s clever or you who’s stupid?

Speaking to journalists can be daunting, especially for people not used to the media spotlight. Media training can help, offering tips on how to get your message across clearly and consistently. But some people break all the rules – and get away with it. One is Dutch football coach Louis van Gaal, soon to be taking over the reins at Manchester United, who once remarked to a TV reporter: “Is it me who’s so clever, or you who’s so stupid?”

Such is his reputation among journalists that one Dutch reporter has drawn up a tongue-in cheek list of ground rules for his British brethren on the do’s and don’ts of interviewing Van Gaal.

“You will be patronised, looked at with disdain, and haunted by a constant doubt if Mr. Van Gaal is flat out making fun of you or being deadly serious,” writes Peter Zantingh in Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad.

His tips for British football journalists include not introducing yourself to Van Gaal, “or else he’ll know your name, remember it and use it against you”; not to repeat a question, no matter how cleverly disguised; to keep fact separate from opinion, which is difficult “as only Mr. Van Gaal can determine which are facts and which are opinions… your facts are opinions”; and finally: “It is not Mr. Van Gaal who has trouble speaking English, it is you, for not going along with his obviously much better interpretation of it”.

Van Gaal’s approach is a far cry from the tips and tricks you’ll hear in a Stampa media training. And usually we advise the interviewee rather than the interviewer. But we can only endorse the central message: when it comes to media interviews, forewarned is forearmed.

Click here to read the full article (in English) on NRC.nl.

No, you’re not Barack Obama

When the 2012 US presidential campaigns for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in full swing, the spotlight suddenly swung onto the cream of the world’s media. News emerged that outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Reuters were allowing campaign officials to censor quotes before publication.

“The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colourful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative,” an NYT article said. “They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”

The shock element was that such powerful international news outfits had agreed to this practice, which was called ‘quote approval’. In countries like the Netherlands, it’s standard practice for journalists to interview people and then to submit the quotes for approval before the article is published.

That may sound appealing: but it’s a double-edged sword for interviewees.

The upside is that you get the chance to correct any inadvertent mistakes made by journalists before your quotes appear. Friendly reporters may even agree to beautify or even remove things you’d rather have said differently or not at all.

The far steeper downside is that it can lure you into a false sense of security during the interview. Instead of carefully watching your words– censoring yourself, if you like – you become loose-lipped in the belief that you, or more likely your comms department or PR agency, can persuade the reporter to scrap or smarten up your quotes after the event.

Say what you mean

You risk shooting your mouth off and so revealing sensitive information, speculating dangerously, or phrasing things in a way that may harm your company’s reputation. And then getting into a ‘discussion’ with the reporter (with you perhaps uttering the taboo yet oft-heard words “Yes, I know I said that, but it’s not what I meant”).

The reporter may then change their copy to suit your wishes – but your relationship with them may be ruined for good. Or they may refuse to adjust the wording – which is their prerogative. This is not internal communications, where the C-suite gets to micro-manage quotes attributed to them. Submitting quotes for checking is a journalistic courtesy, not your legal right. For journalists it’s about the accuracy of their (repeat their) story. Corporate communicators call it ‘quote check’; reporters call it ‘fact check’.

So remember: you have zero control over what a journalist writes, but you have 100% control over what you say. Even if you know you’ll get the quotes for review, pretend to yourself you won’t. Prepare yourself and your messages fully. Know your story, your facts and figures, your examples and anecdotes. And think hard before the interview about the sticky questions you’re likely to get, and how to field them.

Once the questions start coming, stay calm and think very carefully before you answer. Only say things you are happy to be quoted on. If you think all this is easier said than done, rehearse. Get some media training that grills you with nightmare questions until you’re bathed in sweat. Chances are the real interview will then seem like a breeze, and the only person you’ll want to censor is yourself.