Getting cut-through on a busy news day
The requirements of the financial calendar can result in many big companies reporting on the same day - and competing for media coverage
Were you caught out by Super Thursday this year? On 25 February, no fewer than 32 companies reported their full year results to the London Stock Exchange.
City journalists and PRs have started to dub these particularly busy days for announcements Super Thursday, ironically of course.
There’s nothing super about trawling through more than 30 announcements, having at least ten conversations with hopeful chief executives, and many more with eternally optimistic PRs, before finding that there is only room for six stories and a handful of News in Briefs (NIBs) in the next morning’s paper.
Amongst the crowd on this particular Thursday were taxpayer-owned bank Lloyds, major bus and rail operator National Express, mid-cap oil company Premier Oil, one of the UK’s biggest insurers and investors RSA Group, theme park owner Merlin Entertainments and Capita, the support services company that operates in both the private and public sector.
Lloyds gained pretty much blanket coverage in the press and on broadcast media. RSA Group also got some coverage in The Times and Daily Telegraph, as well as in the Financial Times. As befits a company that has been in the news relentlessly since a terrible accident occurred on its Smiler rollercoaster, Merlin Entertainments’ results were well covered, especially as the Health & Safety Executive revealed that it was planning to prosecute the company.
Yet a large company like Rentokil, which employs about 31,000 people, was only covered by one national newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. Once key points in the year for the financial pages of the newspapers, results days are increasingly waning in importance. Telling people how a company performed last year is rarely enough, there has to be a decent story as well.
Giles Croot, head of communications and investor relations at Balfour Beatty, says: ‘These days you can be a significant company reporting on a quiet day and get no coverage.’
He and others attribute this phenomenon to the rapidly diminishing numbers of specialist journalists covering financial news for newspapers, as well as the easy availability of company results online. The media landscape may be changing but journalists still want to rise to the challenge on these bumper reporting days.
Alex Lawson, news editor at the Evening Standard, says that he prepares for busy days by going through recent press cuttings to work out which stories are likely to be the biggest. He will also liaise with reporters to ensure calls are set up with the most important companies and work with the picture and graphics desks to ensure that up-to-date photography is available.
At the end of the day, however, a company’s results will only get covered if there is something interesting in them.
Two-thirds of my clients have a December year-end and you have to report within three months of year-end. It’s tough to get the numbers together and the board meeting done before mid-February and you can’t go much beyond mid-March because it looks sluggish
‘Scale does matter. If a large company does something moderately interesting which will have a big impact on share trading, investors and customers, then it’s more interesting than if, say, a smaller, AIM-listed company sacks its chief executive or issues a profit warning. Sectors are also important.’
Naturally, since a trademark of their profession is cynicism, journalists often feel that companies choose to report on a busy day, in order to avoid close scrutiny.
‘We often find that, particularly in retail or property, clusters of retailers report on the same day. We have repeatedly asked them not to as it means we can’t give our readers the coverage we want, but to no avail. The main culprit we’ve found is John Lewis. Despite not being a listed company, and therefore being less of a problem to move their annual results, the partnership persistently schedules its results on the same day as four to five other big retailers.
‘This means a brand used by thousands of Londoners often gets squeezed out of the business section because they’re less significant to the City, which is frustrating.’
A spokesman for John Lewis Partnership denies this, saying its reporting dates are chosen ‘wholly around its internal calendar’ and how best to communicate the results to its partners.
But one seasoned in-house communicator admits she has seen it done: ‘I definitely know of companies where they have picked a busy day in order to hide.’
At the Evening Standard, they attempt to overcome this by putting a reporter on ‘buried bad news watch’ on busy days. But are journalists unjustifiably suspicious?
A quick survey of a handful of communications directors reveals that the timing of results dates are largely set by the investor relations team, more than a year in advance. The dates are dictated by the timing of board meetings and a company’s year-end.
One financial PR man says: ‘I already have my clients’ 2017 calendar and they probably have their 2018 dates. Two-thirds of my clients have a December year-end and you have to report within three months of year-end.
‘It’s tough to get the numbers together and the board meeting done before mid-February and you can’t go much beyond mid-March because it looks sluggish. It’s a very tight window.’
Add to that the fact that no one wants to report on a Monday (preparation eats into the previous weekend) or a Friday (traditionally poor coverage and many City people not present), then there are only a few suitable days.
In sectors like banking and retail, companies often talk to each other to make sure that they are not trying to hold a press conference or an analysts’ conference at the same time. But it’s making sure that there are no clashes for the analysts’ meeting that is the biggest worry, and the biggest company always knows it has the greater pulling power.
‘There is a pecking order, roughly based on the size of market capitalisation,’ the City PR says. ‘When a date like 25 February comes up, we will warn a client that they might only get a NIB (news in brief).’
Results days are not what they were – to the companies or the press – but they are not yet a shadow of what was, either. ‘It comes down to box office. If you’re a big consumer-facing company – especially if you have had misdemeanours recently – you’ll be covered. But if you’re a B2B company, you probably won’t.’
Press coverage of results may be less significant than it was, but for Alice Macandrew, group communications director at Thomas Cook, it is still a great opportunity to get your point of view across and worth trying to find a less busy day.
We would rather have no coverage than have something that is not well-informed
‘There aren’t that many opportunities for front foot communication. Even if your results are bad, perhaps especially if they’re bad, you want the space and time to talk about them. If you believe that communications is about transparency and telling your story, you don’t get that many opportunities and, for that reason, I also still advocate face-to-face media, even roundtables, for full year results,’ she says, although she acknowledges that this is an ‘old fashioned’ viewpoint.
But if calendar opportunities to make your case are not what they were, the growth of social media has also helped companies to find new ways to communicate their key messages.
Pip Wood, former director of communications at Sainsbury’s and now corporate communications director at British Land, says: ‘For us, the website is a key communications tool. At full and half year results we will do a video or animation that goes out at 7am.’ Wood knows the trade press, still thriving in the commercial property sector, will always cover the story.
And many communications directors will admit that their chief executive would probably prefer not to be in the newspapers. ‘Basically, one well-informed piece is worth half a dozen less informed pieces,’ says one. ‘Those people who are really interested in you – the investors and analysts – we will have direct conversations with. We would rather have no coverage than have something that is not well-informed,’ says another communications director.
And just because the results day is less likely to trigger opportunities for column inches does not make it easier to prepare for. Companies will still spend a lot of time prepping, with initial conversations around key messages and pertinent themes beginning six weeks ahead of the results day.
If you believe that communications is about transparency and telling your story, you don’t get that many opportunities and, for that reason, I also still advocate face-to-face media, even roundtables, for full year results
Difficult questions will be drafted and answers prepared and rehearsed ahead of time, and a full run-through of the presentation will also take place.
‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get coverage, but it does matter if you are not on message when you do speak,’ says one veteran communicator.
And if you think February was busy, just wait until August. Then, half-year results are crammed into an even tighter period in the first two weeks of the month. Some PRs think that creates an even bigger problem than occurs in early spring, but for slightly different reasons.
‘It means you’re going into a market where the analysts are often on holiday, the investors are definitely on holiday and the senior journalists and commentators are probably away. You’re putting a lot of information out there when the most seasoned individuals are not there to ask pertinent questions,’ a communications director observes.
Cynics might say that strict rules on reporting, designed to increase transparency, quite possibly have the opposite effect.