E-PUBLIC RELATIONS: THE WEB TEST - Recent research has revealed that corporate websites are failing business analysts. PRWeek tests the theory with leading financial journalists

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'

were common.

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one thing that particularly annoys is out-of-date information.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

the company.

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

results spreadsheets.

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

communications staff.

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



'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.'


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.


'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.'


'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.'

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