Matthew d’Ancona, political commentator, former editor of The Spectator, and now Editor-at-Large of the New European, kicked off with an overview of today’s challenging political environment and the emergence of new rules of engagement. In conversation with Tessa Murray, Managing Director at Gather, Matthew discussed how, in the United States, the prospect of Trump: The Sequel seemed unthinkable. But here it is, as Trump builds his support base among those who mistrust traditional institutions and feel unheard and unseen by them. Closer to home, we discussed the mountain that Starmer has to climb to rebuild trust between the electorate and government if he is to win a mandate for his ‘decade of renewal’. Through his insight into the Labour Party campaign machinery, Matt said there is a genuine desire to engage positively with business and an acknowledgement that investors and companies require stability to commit capital with confidence.
After a great start with Matt, we then moved on to a discussion with Kate O’Neill, Director of Stakeholder Engagement and Corporate Affairs at the Financial Reporting Council, Victoria Palmer-Moore, Senior Managing Director of Powerscourt, and Richard Costa, Senior Corporate Communications and Reporting Consultant at Gather, about this backdrop reads across to corporates.
The Financial Reporting Council encourages businesses to use annual reports to showcase tangible outcomes. We’re seeing reports put purpose and values at the centre of the business strategy and position purpose and values driving the business model. This demonstrates how businesses are now expected to show their role in society and the economy. However, some corporate reports are more convincing than others.
The strategy of a business is meant to outline how it plans to achieve its ultimate objective, which is its purpose. However, many reports fail to link it with their KPIs. If a purpose is not reflected in financial and non–financial KPIs, then there is a real risk that the organisation lacks authenticity. On the other hand, the business model is supposed to be driven by purpose and values and is presented as “purpose and values in action”. It aims to demonstrate how the company is a force for good and generates value. However, many reports struggle to define what this value is clearly. This raises the question of what the actual purpose of the company’s purpose is. There was a consensus in the room that the capital a company should protect and grow encompasses three areas: financial, human and planetary.
A company can’t be all things to all people. It is OK to work out what you are and what is important to you when it comes to playing a positive and active role for your stakeholders. Connecting genuinely with the people you are co-creating society with is essential. The company relies on a healthy ecosystem of stakeholders, but it does not mean they all have equal billing. The best corporate governance recognises this and, through its reporting, demonstrates the thinking behind the choices made and why. Engaging with stakeholders should not be treated as a popularity contest.
Most corporate reports state that the purpose of the business is to create value for all stakeholders. This perspective needs to be reframed. The truth is that the company generates value in collaboration with stakeholders. Good relationships are essential to supporting each other in achieving an ambition (or value). Sometimes, achieving that ambition may require making difficult decisions about which stakeholders benefit most. Therefore, good corporate reports should develop a narrative demonstrating stewardship, conviction, courage, and fairness. And, as we all know, successful relationships tend to have two-way communication at their heart. Being on ‘receive’ as well as ‘transmit’ is a mark of good reporting. How can you demonstrate you are having that conversation with your stakeholders? How can you prove there is a healthy feedback loop that adds richness to your decision-making processes?
We have noticed that boilerplate reporting increases as the regulatory framework becomes more complicated. Taken to extremes, this can make the communication irrelevant or pointless. With the plethora of reporting frameworks, standards, and expectations, how can companies navigate this and maintain a compelling narrative? The challenge we posed to ourselves as specialists was to stop thinking of reports as a ‘book’ and instead think about the audited content as a ‘source of truth’. As seen in other media, content is king, and the distribution methods are changing. So, how can we harness this rich content and challenge the traditional approach to content hierarchy and audience segmentation? In this regard, a digital-first, open-source approach is our friend.
The UK regulatory environment is widely considered a pragmatic approach. It provides a framework for public entities to build trust and earn a licence to operate. The guidance, principles, and provisions hold us by the hand and help us explain our corporate citizenship. The regulatory framework is rooted in stakeholder capitalism. The agenda at the heart of the regulations is to help build trust in audit and governance. This regulatory approach helps build confidence in UK plc as an investment market and, in turn, expands the number of investment opportunities for asset managers. With an ageing population, delivering returns for pension provision is crucial. However, a considerable amount of value is generated in unlisted companies with asset managers restricted in the amount they can invest. We discussed whether asking private companies to report as their public counterparts might change asset-allocation regulations or level the playing field between private and public companies. If not, the attractiveness of being a public company might continue to dwindle.
To create effective corporate reports, it is helpful to remember the purpose of the regulations – why we must disclose certain information and why particular aspects are emphasised. When a company takes these disclosures seriously and uses them effectively, it can take all its stakeholders on its journey. When there is room to slip a cigarette paper between what you say you are and what you are, it is only a matter of time before that will be outed, and any trust you have built will evaporate as quickly as a puff of smoke – and with it, your licence to operate.
Our next Gather Around event: “How to extract maximum value from your governance reporting”. It will be a working breakfast tailored to company secretaries, heads of IR, and governance professionals taking place at Gather.
If you’d like to discuss this, or any other subject, please get in touch with Richard Costa, Senior Corporate Communications and Reporting Consultant at firstname.lastname@example.org
We’d love to know what you think.