ANALYSIS: Survey shows UK press is hardest on business

Research last week by Carma International on the world's most reported companies suggests the UK media is more critical of business than its counterparts around the world. This poses unique challenges to UK corporate PROs, says Mark Johnson.

Is the UK press anti-business? No PRO working in this country will be a stranger to the notion. But fresh research by media evaluation company Carma International is now claiming that the UK media is more cynical on corporate issues than the media in almost any other country.

A two-year global study by Carma has tracked the coverage of 750 major companies and rated the favourability of the coverage each firm enjoys in 'opinion-leading' media in each country. In the UK, the study covered The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian. Overall ratings are established when points are allocated or taken away according to the positivity or negativity of stories about a particular firm.

One of the key findings of the study is that the UK press gives far less positive coverage to corporate news than any of its counterparts in continental Europe and most other parts of the world. Of the top ten companies by volume of coverage in the UK press in 2001, all but three companies - Microsoft, HBOS and Ford - received an overall negative rating.

Even those that received positive coverage recorded a barely above neutral rating (52 in each case). In the study, scores between 48 and 52 are neutral, while 30 and below is very negative and 70 plus is very positive. Last year, BT was the only company to come close to breaching neutral favourability (51). It all paints a disappointing picture for UK PROs - of a national UK press that is endemically critical of business.

By comparison, in Germany, half of the top ten companies by volume of coverage had favourable ratings last year. This is consistent over the two years of the study. In 2001, the French media gave five companies generally favourable coverage, while in Germany eight companies had positive results.

Carma Europe MD Tom Vesey says there is a distinct difference between the way the UK press and its European counterparts report on business: 'If you look at the French, German and UK top ten, the UK media is, by a long chalk, the most pessimistic. In the UK in 2002, nine out of ten companies rated negatively, so it's a depressing picture.'

To present a case that says the British press is cynical of business is one thing, but to explain the reasons for this is quite another.

International Public Relations Association chief executive Jim Holt agrees the UK press has a 'bad news' agenda, but says further research to explain the reasons behind the findings would be a logical next step. One theory he puts forward is the scrutiny public companies are subject to in the UK compared to continental Europe.

'We have a bigger stock market than either France or Germany. The value of our public companies is much bigger than in Germany, for example, and so the role it plays in British life is more important than in other countries,' says Holt.

Vesey has a different explanation. He says the differences between the European and British press are cultural, with the European press more likely to support indigenous business than in the UK, which is borne out by the findings of the study. As one might expect, each of these countries' national media tend to apportion greater coverage to national companies.

But Vesey says: 'The German media remains very German-centric but immensely patriotic and generally enthusiastic. Siemens had a tough year in 2001 and laid off tens of thousands of staff, but it still managed to gain a positive rating (54).

'In Germany in 2001, nine out of the top ten were favourable, and they were all German companies, except Microsoft. The local media is bullish and very supportive of local companies.'

This support for local companies compared favourably to the UK press, where uniformly negative coverage of UK companies, such as BT, British Airways, Vodafone, and Abbey National showed a 'non-nationalistic' approach, he says.

Seven companies in the UK top ten in 2002 were British, two were American (Enron and Andersen), while Vivendi was the only European company. Enron received, predictably, the most coverage, with a negative rating comparable to that of Andersen.

The study also showed how relatively low-profile UK business is around the world. In the global top 50 most reported companies ranking for last year, only two British companies make an appearance (Vodafone and British Airways). To put that into context, two Spanish companies - from an economy a fraction of the size - also made the chart.

In both winning over a sceptical UK media and raising the profile of indigenous businesses elsewhere in the world, UK corporate PROs have a way to go yet.

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