Wishing you a very happy new year!
Just before the end of 2009, we were asked by Communicate magazine to look at the language used in the annual reports of the four nominated companies for Best Overall Annual Report in the FTSE 100 category at the IRS Best Practice Awards. Below is the article.
In January we’re offering our word cloud service to anyone who would like us to review a piece of communication. To find out more please email [email protected].
Here’s to a busy and exciting 2010!
At the time these word clouds appeared, these four companies were operating in the eye of the storm, which hit the financial markets in 2008. Some felt the effects more keenly than others.
The 3i cloud is about as gloomy as they come. During the financial year to March 2009, the UK’s oldest private equity group was in the thick of the most rapid economic downturn in its long and illustrious history. It took a beating, reporting a record loss of £2.15bn in the year to March 2009. The cloud is darkened by words like ‘debt’ (54 mentions), ‘fall’ (32) and ‘loss’ (25). The word ‘gearing’ is mentioned 15 times. Given that 3i’s own gearing reached an excruciating 103 per cent, while net debt stood at more than £2bn this is perhaps not surprising. The word ‘upturn’ is dangled in front of investors’ noses in the chairman’s statement but doesn’t make it onto the cloud.
Marks and Spencer, the grande dame of the British high street, was meanwhile suffering more than its fair share of difficulties as a result of the downturn. The words ‘customer’ and ‘food’ are writ large as it seeks to reassure investors it is focusing on shoppers and its celebrated (but pricey) food offering in the face of stiff competition from rivals. What is striking though is the word ‘governance’ with 75 mentions in all. At the time, Sir Stuart Rose was taking flak from institutional investors following a board decision allowing him to take on both the chairman and chief executive roles, against corporate governance best practice. The repetition of ‘governance’ may play into the popular idea that if you say a word often enough, people will start to believe you are doing something about it. M&S has just announced the appointment of a new chief executive and things have improved. From a position of relative safety, Sir Stuart was recently reported to have described the Christmas 2008 trading period as “Armageddon” although there is no reference to that word in the cloud.
In Centrica’s annual report, the word ‘customer’ is mentioned more frequently than the word ‘shareholder’, which is perhaps surprising given its investor audience. This may be part of a broader attempt to present a customer-friendly face after the owner of British Gas caused howls of protest in 2008 following soaring profits at its residential unit. The words ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ feature prominently too, and are perhaps indicative of the extreme levels of volatility in wholesale gas and power prices Centrica experienced at the time.
But the picture was brighter at Tullow Oil and this cloud’s lining looks distinctly silver compared to the others. The words ‘upside’ and ‘potential’ appear frequently with ‘success’ garnering 96 mentions. Tullow’s renewed focus on exploration in African countries is shown in this cloud, with ‘Africa’ appearing 49 times, ‘Ghana’ 74 times and ‘Uganda’ 68 times. The company is not shy about its good fortune. The words ‘deliver’, ‘growth’, ‘success’ and ‘strong’ (which is mentioned 66 times), feature heavily. But the tone is measured, a reflection perhaps of the hazardous nature of its business: the word ‘risks’ crops up 110 times.
The word ‘responsibility’ comes up in all three except the M&S cloud, although words such as governance, independent and audit are sprinkled liberally here. While the word may well feature in previous reports as organisations highlight corporate and social responsibility, you can’t help wondering if it might have become even more attractive – sexy even – as companies sought to soothe and reassure in the wake of the seismic events of 2008.