National Storytelling Week is the Society for Storytelling’s annual jamboree of all things story. And, as for each of the last four years, here at corporate and brand storytelling consultancy Insight Agents, we’re marking the week by publishing some new research. In our line of fire this year? The humble – and often overblown – news release, that staple of corporate and brand storytelling.
What we’ve found is this: Britain’s biggest companies write news releases that are woolly, opaque, and routinely fail to communicate clearly. They’re often too long, with sentences so protracted that they defy understanding. And men outnumber women almost nine to one as spokespeople. Yes, you read me right. Almost nine to one.
Our research has analysed the linguistic content of news releases from the top 50 firms on the Financial Times share index. We’re publishing these findings during National Storytelling Week as the second annual FTSE50 Clarity Index to celebrate the society’s week. And to turn the spotlight on that often-overlooked quarter of storytelling: corporate and brand storytelling. You can download your copy of the report here.
We asked our research collaborators from the Catalyst Scheme at Sussex University’s Innovation Centre to harvest the ten most recent news releases from the 50 biggest companies of the FTSE, posted online to mid-November 2018. They then analysed how simple or complex the releases were to read. They used the well-established Flesch Kincaid (FK) reading ease tool, via www.readable.io. The analysis enabled our researchers to re-rank the FTSE50 by linguistic clarity. The top ten is shown in the table below.
Top ten best communicators on FTSE50 for linguistic clarity of news releases
Financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown was the clearest communicator on the FTSE50, one of three companies from the sector in the top ten (also Aviva and Barclays). It’s another good year for Aviva (4th), which topped the inaugural FTSE50 Clarity Index in 2018 (turn back the clock to last year’s blog here). None of Britain’s ten biggest companies featured in the FTSE Clarity Index 2019, with the two biggest – Royal Dutch Shell (£203bn market capitalisation) and HSBC (£130bn) – ranked 16th and 19th respectively.
The three media and publishing companies on the FTSE50 don’t win any awards for clarity or ease of understanding. Publishers RELX Group (which now dubs itself an “information and analytics company”) and Informa ranked 27 and 45 respectively. Meanwhile, WPP Group – the holding company for world’s largest collection of advertising and PR firms – came in at 43, four places below its rank by market capitalisation. There’s clearly still a lot of work to do for new CEO, Mark Read, if he’s to get his message across clearly following Martin Sorrell’s departure last year.
The gender imbalance of spokespeople quoted in the news releases of Britain’s biggest businesses is stark. On average, almost nine out of ten news releases quoted male spokespeople. 21 companies quoted only men, and a further 14 quoted just one woman. Prudential was the only company on the index approaching parity, with six men and four women quoted in the ten news releases analysed. This contrasts with the FAANG Five – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. Google and Facebook featured equal numbers of female and male spokespeople.
Even in the digital media age, the news release remains an important tool for corporate communication. It’s also one over which companies have total control, unlike a lot of social media content. That’s why we find it embarrassing that so many of Britain’s biggest business do it so badly. Writing good news releases is fundamentally an exercise in empathy. It’s about putting yourself in the mind of those who will read the news release – journalists, bloggers, anyone outside the organisation. This is true of all business writing, but particularly news releases.
Sam Knowles is a data storyteller and the Founder & MD of Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations talk Human and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, speaker, and podcaster, he is the co-founder and co-host of the Small Data Forum podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council.
Sam is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data (Routledge, 2018, with more at www.narrativebynumbers.com). This has just been followed by a sequel, How To Be Insightful: Unlocking the Superpower that Drives Innovation (also Routledge, May 2020, and more at www.HowToBeInsightful.com).