A timely soundbite beats hours of analysis

Companies should see their preliminary announcement as an opportunity to sell themselves, argues Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
Directors of public companies can be - in one respect, at least - not unlike those sad fellows who prop up bars long into the night. They claim to be misunderstood.

For the barflies, the problem is their wife or girlfriend; for the director, it is the markets. They complain of not being able to get their message across and of a lack of recognition for the shareholder value of their business.

In fact, says the accountancy firm Deloitte & Touche, the cause of the difficulties may just be poor communications. It suggests that at a time when the Cadbury and Greenbury Code are forcing greater attention to the details in their annual accounts, companies are missing a trick or two when it comes to preliminary announcements.

A research report just published by the firm under the title Communication: A Commentary on Preliminary Announcements points out that "the report and accounts may be the most comprehensive financial document [companies] produce, but it is not the one with the most impact on the markets".

This is because by the time it appears most of the information in it is stale. "It provides the detail that allows the markets to polish their assessments, but it is not the key source of price-sensitive information," the report says.

That distinction belongs to the preliminary announcement, which in the words of Deloitte & Touche, "provides a timely basis for interaction with analysts and press, a more flexible approach to reporting than annual or interim accounts, and the most relevant opportunity to present your position to the market". In other words, it can have a far greater impact on the markets than any other communication made during the year.

According to Deloitte & Touche, many companies have already acknowledged this and use the preliminary announcement to bring out themes that might otherwise disappear in volumes of financial information. Under the Yellow Book regulations, there are minimum levels of disclosure, but some companies provide additional information on such matters as investment strategy, market potential, product innovation, environmental strategy and community involvement.

The firm accepts that there is a danger in addressing too many of these issues, since that risks re-creating the density of the annual report - and so reducing the value of the announcement. Consequently, "directors should be clear about what the marketplace wants to know, and should meet that need clearly and economically".

The Deloitte & Touche research shows that current practice among FT-SE 100 companies is variable, with only a minority exemplifying what it would regard as best practice - "clear messages backed up with full and relevant data".

It adds that "it is increasingly evident that successful businesses keep those who influence their share price properly informed of both historical performance and the future developments of the business". Achieving this entails paying more attention to content, style and delivery than many companies are accustomed to.

As Deloitte & Touche points out, some directors will not wish to depart from the "comfort zone" of the traditional format, but others will see opportunities for innovation. And to help them along this road, the firm - which believes it is the first big accountancy firm to take this approach - has produced a pro forma preliminary announcement document designed to provide a benchmark by setting out both best practice and contributions from analysts and fund managers.

Of course, a pretty form is no substitute for poor content. But if directors can feel that they are better able to put across their messages, they may be less inclined to join those bar-stool characters crying into their beer.

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