It was all supposed to be so different. Websites were meant to be
the ultimate communications tools, allowing corporations to supply more
information to more people in more places, more easily.
Their potential is amply summed up by Institute of Public Relations head
of policy Nigel O'Connor. 'By enabling a greater number of people to
access institutional investor information in a timely and more equal
manner, the scope of communication can be greatly improved,' he
But it seems many companies have failed when it comes to informing key
audiences such as investors and journalists. Research by Brunswick
subsidiary Merchant found that even many of the UK's largest companies
are failing to use the web properly when it comes to talking to
Key issues that any serious investor would want to consider before
putting their cash into a company were simply not addressed online.
Merchant found that 40 per cent of company websites failed to clearly
articulate the firm's strategy, 78 per cent did not mention risk
management, 55 per cent did not reveal information about growth
prospects and 81 per cent failed to provide information about senior
management below board level.
The survey, which was based on 85 key criteria covering corporate
management information and operational factors such as market reports
and environmental policy, found that three of the Top 10 FTSE 100 firms
failed to score more than 30 per cent. The best sites were those run by
BP, Shell and AstraZeneca, with the Royal Bank of Scotland also scoring
well on 23 key investment criteria, which included access to directors'
CVs and the five-year financial history (see panel, top right).
'We visited a site and behaved as if we were an investor,' says Merchant
managing partner Robert Moser. 'If you can't find information in five
minutes it's as good as not there.'
Follow-up research with analysts confirmed that corporate websites
weren't the communications vehicles they ought to be. Comments such as
'I can get the information faster elsewhere' or 'there's real
frustration when information I know should be available isn't posted'
Investor-Relations.co.uk business development director Peter Kemp says
one thing that particularly annoys is out-of-date information. Concerns
are also increasingly being raised about the practice of quoting broker
reports without any disclaimer, an issue that has become high profile in
the US, he adds.
Moser argues that companies need to do more than just provide old
information if they are to take advantage of what the web offers. 'If
you're not adding value, all you're doing is making the internet a
library of information you can find elsewhere,' he says.
As means of adding value online, he cites developments such as the
ability to put spreadsheets on a site and provide video site visits.
One company providing online programming accessible to both investor and
media audiences is Cantos, which has clients such as BT, WH Smith and
Safeway. Marketing director Rosie Catherwood says the internet can be
used to get a company's message to a wide audience before the key issues
get hidden by layers of media and broker analysis. 'It's becoming
increasingly difficult to find out what people actually said,' she
Cantos, which broadcasts a mix of 'tough question-and-answer sessions'
and site visits at www.cantoscomms. com, argues that clever use of the
web can also save time. Catherwood says the three hours of senior
management time needed to brief analysts could be better spent running
However, the key to being a useful service for time-sensitive
communities such as investors and journalists is speed, according to BP
e-communications manager Teresa Clifford. She cites the company's merger
with Amoco in 1998, when information was put online the minute the Stock
Exchange was notified of the deal. Traffic increased 50-fold in five
'If you're not there in the first five minutes, you have lost your
influencers,' she says. 'We've concentrated on being fast. Our next
thing is to provide additional resources.'
Having recently rebranded as 'Beyond Petroleum', the company completely
restructured its website in time for its most recent reporting season in
March. The site now allows shareholders in both the UK and the US to
vote online, graph the share price against its competitors and download
This month it has also started webcasting seminars - the first will
cover technology and will allow questions to be put to senior staff
Another factor that should encourage use of the web is the increasing
regulatory pressure for full disclosure of information to all
shareholders at the same time.
'From our perspective it's an absolute driver,' says AstraZeneca
vice-president of corporate affairs Mike Rance. 'We will routinely use
the dot.com site to make available material that we have made available
to small numbers of institutional people, so that the old lady in
Tunbridge Wells can get access too.'
As a global operation, AstraZeneca is also able to use its armoury of
websites to provide different information to its different groups, with
more detail on the country-specific sites and the dot.com acting as a
portal as well as a primary point of contact.
Shell is another company that has a range of websites - about 100 at the
last count. It's in the middle of assessing whether they serve all its
stakeholders - including investors, non-governmental organisations and
journalists - as well as they might.
Group head of communications Sara Sizer says the results of the survey
are due to go live in the autumn but, although the company has looked at
providing bespoke sites for individual communities, it has thus far
rejected the concept.
'It's something that we fully review but I suppose our starting point is
transparency - is there something an investor would want that the
general public wouldn't want?' she says. 'We do not have media rooms or
investor relations rooms. All of our information is available to
One company that has taken a different tack is Granada Media, which has
created a bespoke service for key journalists. The password-protected
site now allows 25 selected finance and business specialists to find out
who the company's major shareholders are, read a strategy statement,
examine the latest newswire reports about the company, read brokers'
research and even send SMS messages to key internal and agency
At Citigate Dewe Rogerson, the company that developed the Granada Media
site, director Simon Rigby says the aim is to provide a simple,
consistent format that can also be rolled out to other clients.
The site went live at the end of April and aims to avoid the 'we are the
greatest' attitude of some sites.
Instead, it adopts a more honest way of dealing with an informed
audience, Rigby says.
Anecdotal evidence shows that some journalists remain reluctant to trust
the information they find online, however. Even those who do use the web
are critical of the failure of companies to provide more than a
One said that industrial shots, illustrating what firms actually do,
were particularly lacking.
Brodeur Worldwide account director for online communication Michael
O'Connell says research indicates that 40 per cent of basic journalistic
queries receive unsatisfactory answers from corporate websites. The
result, he warns, is that 'people either leave that information out of
their articles or they get it wrong'.
The Times media editor Raymond Snoddy praises the Granada Media site but
hints at journalists' laments about the limitations of all corporate
information, on or offline. 'Within limits - because the real stories
are the ones that will never appear there - it's very, very useful,' he
PEGGY HOLLINGER - FINANCIAL TIMES
'I'd use a corporate website if I was looking to get an idea of the
history of the company, check who's on the board and read any recent
news announcements,' says FT company news editor Peggy Hollinger.
'It should also provide easy access to information that will give me an
idea of the spread of the business. It's important to have contact
numbers easily available too.
'My main reason for looking at corporate websites is to get some context
about a story or issue. More often than not, I'm amazed at how difficult
it is to get the information I want.
'One thing that is particularly useful for the FT is access to a full
set of pictures of the company's board members and up-to-date
information about any changes. Having said that, while I would trust
information that I found at a corporate site about sales and profits, I
would not trust it to be up to date on board make-up.
'Dedicated sites for journalists would be useful, providing facts at
your fingertips and offering a very clear map of the business -
something that's a rarity at the moment. A lot of this information is in
the annual report but they should be able to pull it out.'
MERCHANT INTERNATIONAL STUDY
The Merchant study examined the UK's performance relative to the US,
Germany, France, Portugal and Spain. German companies came out on top,
with an average score of 45 per cent; the UK lost on penalties at 44 per
cent. The US scored 39 per cent, France hit 33 per cent, Spain 25 per
cent and Portugal 20 per cent.
In these six countries, more than 50 per cent of company websites
provided access to information such as press releases, a live share
price, dividends, strategy information, a search facility, a calendar of
corporate events and a vision statement.
Items found on less than 50 per cent of sites included five-year
financial highlights, directors' CVs, comparative share price graphs,
market reports, information about senior managers, scenario modeling and
information on risk.
The top company in Germany was Daimler-Chrysler, in France Aventis and
in the US Coca-Cola.
Merchant's research programme started in August 2000 with investigations
into the performance of FTSE Top 10 companies and the situation outside
the UK, carried out in the first quarter of 2001.
ROGER RIDEY - THE INDEPENDENT
'I look at corporate websites several times a week, probably looking for
similar sorts of information as investors as well as searching for
background or even contact information,' says The Independent Network
editor Roger Ridey.
'Unfortunately, I usually only find what I'm looking for about 50 per
cent of the time and sometimes, even when it is there, poor design makes
it pretty hard to find.
'I think companies do not realise how important it is to have a good
website. They could make it much easier for journalists to find the
information they need and maybe even spend a little bit less on
'If I could go to a website and find what I wanted rather than leave a
message and hope someone will get back to me, that would be good. That's
how I think it should work - let's eliminate the middle-man.
'What I'd like to be able to find is company news that's current and
background, such as who the main people in the company are. A lot of
companies could do better in photos and product photos too.
'The most frustrating thing is spending five minutes searching through a
badly designed site and still not finding what you're looking for.
There's nothing worse than finding a site that has some huge Flash thing
then sparse information and soundbites. Why bother? It's fairly obvious
when you look at some sites that they're just producing a brochure that
maybe they update once a year.
'Microsoft and Apple have good sites, as do most computer companies.
It's when you go to other types of firm that you run into problems. I
was looking for something on the Eidos site about its financial results
recently and it was just very difficult to find. The information is
there, but with the way the site's designed it's very hard to find the
things you're looking for.'
MATTHEW VALENCIA - THE ECONOMIST
'As an editor rather than a reporter, I tend to look at news sites such
as Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! Finance and the New York
Times rather than corporate internet sites. This is mainly because I
don't have the time, rather than a lack of will,' says Economist
business editor Matthew Valencia.
'The most recent experience I had with a company website was trying to
find an illustration of a fancy new train for an article about German
railways. The only picture of it on the website was tiny - you'd think
they'd want to publicise it a bit more.
'I think there's been a huge improvement in the past year or two and
some of the early sites have been upgraded for the better.
'I had more regular exposure to corporate websites in my last job, when
I was based in Frankfurt covering German business and finance and the
European Central Bank. My experience there was that company websites
tended to be pretty poor both in terms of getting around and getting
information you needed.
'The particular area that was lacking was detailed information on the
company background - companies often seemed to think that simply putting
up the last ten to 15 press releases was enough.
'Sometimes you'd come across sites that had all the design features and
all the buttons to press; you'd think "that looks good" but when you
clicked through there was just a five line par in each section. There
was no meat and bones on the site.'