FOCUS: INFORMATION SERVICES - Working on a need to know basis/In the world of high finance, where a wealth of information is instantly available 24 hours a day, it’s not just who you know, but what you know that can give you the edge over your com

The City used to be a place of mystery. Few people knew about high finance, let alone cared. But all that has changed. Football club and building society listings have brought consumers into the loop.

The City used to be a place of mystery. Few people knew about high

finance, let alone cared. But all that has changed. Football club and

building society listings have brought consumers into the loop.



Most do still watch from the sidelines though. Twelve million private

investors now hold one-fifth of British shares, according to the London

Stock Exchange, yet only 500,000 are active traders. And of the three

million new building society shareholders, 84 per cent do not

participate further in the stock market because of lack of

information.



Newspapers have adapted their coverage to address this broader

audience.



Companies are reporting their performance in ever greater detail. The

need for new channels of communication have never been greater.

Technology may be speeding up the information flow but cold financial

statistics have never been much of a turn-on: it’s what you do with them

that counts.



That is why information service companies are rushing to launch new

value-added services. Most of the big providers now offer both on-line

and web-based products. Larger clients with their own IT networks often

use ’push technology’ to download customised financial information.



For a journalist, a test drive of on-line services like Reuters Business

Briefing and FT Profile produces a bewildering choice. Where do you

start?



It is with this problem in mind that information providers are

endeavouring to make their services more user-friendly.



This month, Reuters is launching an improved Windows-based on-line

version of Business Briefing with enhanced graphics. Marketing manager

Katherine May explains: ’There is a big increase in demand for financial

information which complements news. So we have developed functionality

and enhanced graphics. For instance, you can now produce a graph of the

last five years of a share price and then click on peaks or troughs and

automatically receive articles related to this, explaining these

movements.’



Reuters is increasing its financial information offer and now offers up

to ten years of financial summaries on many quoted companies and general

corporate information to complement it with the aim of offering a

one-stop-shop for business information.



But information overload is becoming a serious problem, particularly

with the unfettered development of the internet. Reuters published a

report on the issue - Dying for Information - in 1996. It found that 84

per cent of managers are forced to collect information to stay

competitive but 43 per cent said having too much was delaying important

business decisions.



May says: ’While information on the internet is free, it can be

difficult to find what you want in the time available. Also companies

just put selected marketing information on the internet not the valuable

stuff.’



Another on-line service, FT Profile offers business material from over

5,000 sources including newspapers, market research and statistics. Its

web equivalent - FT.com - is attracting up to 3,000 registered new users

each day with 35,000 users visiting the site each day.



Marketing manager, Kim Tomkins says: ’There are an increasing number of

people who need up-to-date financial information, such as PR executives

who need to dip in from time to time to run a search on a company or

market or perhaps prepare for a pitch. We are putting more FT Profile

information on the web and simplifying the price structure making it

more accessible to areas like PR.’



The globalisation of markets has led to the globalisation of financial

news and the Financial Times has recently crossed the Rubicon of

carrying more international than UK coverage. Its FT web site updates

news 11 times a day. But Tomkins says this will not replace the

newspaper. ’The two will always exist side by side. FT.com has a younger

audience and there is a different type of information in the two.’



While PR agencies used to have to wait until news appeared in the press

before they could react, they can now receive the news at the same time

as the media, from services such as PA News, and use it proactively.



PA’s NewsFile was designed specifically with PR companies in mind.

Account manager for business information services, Jon Ingram says: ’We

cover the FTSE 100 in depth and agencies can use such information to

give a consumer focus to the news. For instance they can use early news

in an area like interest rates to say how it could affect

mortgages.’



Since agencies can now download financial articles direct from their

source, one wonders if there is still any need to use the monitoring

agencies.



But Charles Huxley, managing director of Tellex Monitors, points out:

’Our information is tailor-made for the client. While you can sometimes

print out information from the web and on-line services, you then have

to make sense of it. Over the last 10 years financial information has

moved from being a specialist area to a major sector and agencies need

to manage the public presence of a brand. The information that

shareholders and the public see can dramatically affect share

prices.’



But it is not just the technology which is taking off. Two-Ten

Communications reports a marked increase in sales of its Britons Index

financial contact directories covering financial institutions and

investment analysts.



Sales director, Amanda Alexander says: ’Traditional values are still at

the fore in the financial world and books remain popular because you can

photocopy items, carry them with you and every large consultancy needs

that base of financial reference books. But it is no longer just the top

financial consultancies which need them. A much broader spread of

agencies now needs financial information.’



PR is increasingly acting as a gatekeeper - sorting out what is relevant

for clients and packaging it.



Julian Hanson-Smith of Financial Dynamics says: ’On its own, financial

information is a sterile source, it needs interpretation and

comment.



We have researchers deciding where to look, packaging the information

and using it for our own purposes on various sectors. We have immediate

access to financial information around the world and filter this through

to clients on a selective basis. So we are a gathering and editing

facility acting as a cypher for clients.’



Evaluation is the natural complement of planning and with so much being

invested in financial information, clients need early qualitative

feedback on how the media is using it. Sandra MacLeod of CARMA

International says: ’There is a big demand for testing communications

and clients are increasingly looking at precisely where and when stocks

are most sensitive to media information.



’Certain stocks with a heavy institutional base may be less affected by

media comment whereas new stocks, particularly, IT and biotechnology,

are very much affected.’



CUTTINGS SERVICES: UP-TO-DATE MARKET INFORMATION



A deft hand with the scissors and a quick eye for a company name was all

that used to be demanded of a cuttings agency but increasingly they are

expanding their role into providing far wider market information.



While Durrants Press Cuttings still does what its name suggests, it is

finding that clients are increasingly requesting more of a market

information service.



Marketing director, Jon Shepherd explains: ’We have noticed that more

companies are recognising the value of monitoring press coverage on a

much broader basis. Clients are increasingly using our service to

collate market information to keep an eye on competitors and new

developments.



For instance, mobile phone companies need to keep track of the debate on

whether these phones can actually be harmful to health. That debate

takes you outside of looking at the normal newspapers and magazines to

also looking at the specialist medical press so there are increasing

spin-offs of interest into new areas.’



With on-line information and web sites available to them, clients are

increasingly using their terminals to carry out searches themselves. But

Shepherd insists: ’With the human touch you are getting a much more

personal and accurate service and it can be much cheaper than the per

line charges of on-line services. We are dealing with the most

up-to-date press, read all through the night and the results can be on

your desk at seven in the morning. It’s all filtered out for you.’



However, Sandra MacLeod of media evaluator CARMA International questions

whether cutting agency staff can be skilled enough to meet their

promises.



’There is a lot of aspiration but I question whether many of them have

the right staff and resources to do it. A lot or our researchers are

City analysts and I don’t think you would find that in a press cutting

agency.’



However she adds: ’On the other hand, it could be a natural move for

them, just as we are increasingly going in for more qualitative research

and playing more of an advisory role for our clients. The demand is

there and there is the opportunity to expand the areas they operate

in.’



BUILDING BRIDGES: GETTING THE INSIDE STORY ON JOURNALISTS



Agencies have become adept at providing clients with full briefs on the

media with which they interact. So it seems a logical next step to

provide them next with in-depth background on the journalists

themselves.



Information service provider PiMS is now expanding into providing more

detailed information on journalists. Marketing manager, Colin Taylor

explains: ’We have always collected basic information on journalists but

are constantly getting requests from clients on their specific areas of

interest. For instance even within a specialist field like personal

finance there are journalists with very specific interests in areas,

such as PEPs. We can also build up more personal background, such as

their career history, so that clients can bring these things up in

conversation, helping them to develop a closer relationship.’ PiMS

builds up its information through its in-house research team, contacting

journalists directly and building up some anecdotal material. Taylor

says: ’This business is all about establishing relationships so it can

also be useful to know about journalists’ likes and dislikes and even

the names of their children.’ Taylor adds that clients are also keen to

know whether journalists prefer to be kept informed via e-mail or

fax.



Journalists are often on the move and many clients need regular help to

keep track of them. Two-Ten Communications has pioneering an e-mail

service for clients that details financial journalists’ movements.

Amanda Alexander explains: ’We have access to City desks and they pass

on information each week about their journalists’ movements and who is

replacing them.



We talk to journalists each Friday and send e-mails out to clients to

keep them informed.’ Providing detailed information on what journalists

are thinking is also becoming an intrinsic part of media evaluation

work. Sandra MacLeod of Carma International says: ’We always look at

journalists as part of our normal analysis. It is important to know

who’s who and what they are thinking, not only on the media side, but

also among analysts and other opinion formers. We carry out specific

qualitative research with journalists, interviewing them and feeding

this back to clients to help measure the effectiveness of communication

and consider further issues that need to be addressed.’



ADVANCE KNOWLEDGE: FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED



Good timing is crucial to the success of a PR campaign, but it is not an

easy element to judge. Forward planning specialist Advance Media

Information (AMI) believes it has the answer - an on-line database

providing a comprehensive list of diary dates for news, business and

entertainment events covering a 12-month period.



The AMI service is managed by a team of 12 journalists and updated round

the clock. Editor Andrew Sillett says the database was designed for

journalists wanting to anticipate forthcoming news stories, but an

increasing number of PR agencies are now using it as a tool for

identifying promotional opportunities and planning PR activities.



’If you are planning to hold an AGM, you have to try and ensure it is

not clashing with anything that could take away coverage. For instance

there could be other AGMs, financial results, conferences and reports

happening on the same day. Also if you know that certain financial

information is coming out you can prepare to target a news story for

your client around it,’ he says.



Run in association with entertainment forward planning specialist London

at Large, the AMI service has been operating for two years, and now has

an estimated 250 users. Visitors, having logged on to the site with an

ID and password, are presented with a menu of categories, covering

business, news, arts and entertainment. Once they have defined a search

according to category, dates and keywords, the database retrieves a list

of relevant events and anniversaries, with contact details and web

hyperlinks for further information on each entry. The value of the

service lies in providing an instant and streamlined body of information

on a particular subject without having to waste time trawling through

countless web sites for relevant data, says Sillett.



’We work a bit like a news agency, with a news desk and reporters, and

we in effect anticipate the national news agenda.’ Information is

filtered by AMI according to how likely it is to be of interest to the

national press, and, he says, important links are established between

events which help users to plan ahead. ’If you want to launch a Japanese

car, August may seem like a good time because it is the month when new

registrations appear, but it would not seem so good if you knew that

Japanese war crimes were likely to be in the news at the same time.’



PR agencies pay pounds 295 a quarter for the AMI service, compared to

pounds 1,500 a quarter for the national press. A useful investment,

perhaps, but Sillett does admit that it requires a certain amount of

initiative on the part of the user if it is to be used effectively.

There is no cross-referencing, and it may be necessary to use a bit of

lateral thinking to find what you are looking for.



’If the Bank of England announces that it is cutting interest rates,

does that come under business or news? The choice is not always

clear-cut,’ he says.



Nicola Tyrrell.



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