Archive for April, 2021

A tale of two media empires

Posted on: April 30th, 2021 by Tomas White

The new editor of the Financial Times, Roula Khalaf, used her first interview with Amol Rajan’s Media Show to tell a story of growing confidence and optimism. Fresh from breaking the story about David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, Khalaf has quickly found her feet after taking over from the long serving Lionel Barber.

After almost a decade of being the anti-Brexit newspaper, the FT is now shifting focus, bringing in more investigations, an emphasis on corporate reporting, with more exciting layouts and an increased use of data. Khalaf has established the Climate Hub and is banking on steady and stable growth under the FT subscription and paywall model.

Her next challenge, she says, is diversity. It’s a challenge: the latest research shows the average FT reader is 51 and works in finance. Khalaf believes the only way to reach a young and more diverse audience is by ensuring also its journalism reflects their world. The FT still does not have a black columnist, so diversity of the staff is also a priority for the Lebanese-born editor.

Several news groups held serious discussions about whether now was the time to begin seriously considering an end to newsprint because of the huge fall in physical sales of newspapers. However, after an initial fall the FT recovered, with its glossier FT Weekend recording double digit sales growth. For now, the group remains committed to printing its pink papers although, interestingly, the main reason cited by Khalaf was that the paper was ‘the best marketing tool’ for its journalism

This optimistic outlook is in sharp contrast to developments at News UK, home of The Sun and The Times. In an email to staff, CEO Rebekah Brooks revealed Rupert Murdoch has abandoned plans for a right-of-centre ’Fox News-lite’ here in the UK. Mrs Brooks said, “While there is consumer demand for alternative news provision, the costs of running a rolling news channel are considerable, and it is our assessment that the payback for our shareholders wouldn’t be sufficient. We need to launch the right products for the digital age.”

This is certainly true, and the global Murdoch business is enjoying success with streamed news programmes such as Fox Nation and Fox News International. But there is another reason behind this decision. Five years ago, News UK was set a challenge by Brooks and her deputy, the popular and capable David Dinsmore, to properly monetise all their brands. New revenue streams were urgently needed to stem the flow of cash from the decline of the value of adverts in their newspapers.

There have been some notable successes – subscriptions to The Times, the Sun’s Dream Team and Times Radio in particular. But the decline in ad revenue has not been stemmed and the company is having to make increasingly deep cuts to spending.

News UK is nowhere near the crisis at Reach plc, the Daily Mirror’s parent company. But it has an increasingly aggressive opponent in the campaign Stop Funding Hate, which grew out of the telephone hacking scandal in 2011. Then campaigners targeted the supermarkets, fashion brands, DIY stores and betting companies who spent millions on advertising at the News of the World. It was the threat of losing advertising revenue, rather than the reputational damage of hacking, that led to the closure of the News of the World.

In February, Stop Funding Hate announced it would campaign for an advertising boycott of the right-wing news network GB News, which launches soon. The News UK product would expect similar attention. I’m told there was a warning that incendiary content on the new television network would also lead to campaigns against advertisers in The Times and The Sun. This would be a devastating blow for a business that has spent a year fighting to preserve their print editions in lockdown.

Instead, it’s been decided a reduced streaming platform will be much safer, with personalised adverts aimed at online viewers. The test version, News to Me, will stay far away from politics and focus on entertainment. Sports shows are also in the pipeline, I hear.

For Rupert Murdoch, forty years after he bought The Times and the Sunday Times, the time has come to take the safer option.

Fan-led review of football: An opportunity to support grassroots football

Posted on: April 28th, 2021 by Tomas White

Indeed, for many years there was certainly a sense that the Conservatives and football fans weren’t natural partners. Very few top-flight football clubs had a Conservative MP until the Red Wall fell in the 2019 General Election.

Conservatives, like the public in general, are also rightly suspicious of mixing politics and sport. People attend a game to witness footballing skill and feel a sense of camaderie with people of all races and classes cheering for their team.

However, the undignified mess that was the European Super League (ESL) “launch” the other week, suggests the Government need to give attention to the governance of football. Thankfully, they have the personnel to do this and are developing exciting ideas about how to reform the beautiful game.

Firstly, the Party has people who know this space well. Damian Collins MP has led various inquiries into Football Governance when Chair of the DCMS Committee.  The formidable No10 advisor Elena Narozanski successfully linked the power of communities and sport in their 2019 manifesto.  And Tracey Crouch MP – former Sports Minister (and rather handy player); respected on both sides of the House – is now leading this fan-led review.

Secondly, there is a recognition at the top of government of a key aspect of the game: grassroots football.  Boris is not a diehard football fan and rightly does not pretend to be. However, he does recognise the importance of football governance and acted decisively on the proposed European Super League.

Thirdly, this commitment is not new. Take Boris’s visit to Cheadle back in December 2019 for example – when he announced additional £550m investment for grassroots football. The Government support for a 2030 World Cup bid, and a legacy of new facilities for budding sportspeople throughout the country, all show emphatic Conservative commitment.

Fourthly, grassroots sport is also central to the new government focus on tackling obesity. The social value of a thriving grassroots game undoubtedly helps address the tide of young kids glued to their games consoles, who aren’t getting enough physical activity in every week.

Put simply, football is so much more than what you see on the TV screen. It has deep roots in every community. Over 12 million adults (pre-Covid) kick a football every week in some shape or form. And this participation in the grassroots football makes a hefty £10.16bn contribution to society every year.

Now that the terms of reference for the fan led of review football has been published, I therefore urge Tracey Crouch to give this area of the game – grassroots football – even further attention – specifically with regard to facilities and the review’s focus on the “flow of money through the football pyramid”.

She won’t need to go far to find out what is needed to support its future. The Football Foundation set out last year precisely what is needed with regard to grassroots facilities – and where.  The Premier League, The FA and DCMS are all funders of the Football Foundation and have contributed significantly –  but the evidence is that this investment simply is not enough.

But why is this aspect of the game so important?

As the riches of the Premier League and popularity of football have both grown, it demonstrates that our stewardship and investment in the game has not moved at the same pace.  Poor regulation means bad owners can rip the heart out of a football club without fear of retaliation. The European Super League and the rumours of a top flight club considering a move abroad suggest a danger that English football could become more like American sport – where teams move cities for tax breaks and are not as moored in their communities as they are here.

In turn, any attention or concern for our poor grassroots facilities has been predictably minimal – with predictable results to boot.

Indeed, when I was speaking at a UEFA roundtable in Geneva a few years ago, my counterpart in Germany expressed his envy at just how large and significant even our semi-professional game was.  Conversely, I expressed my envy at the fact that Germany were now building more artificial football pitches in a single year than what we had in total!

We can clearly learn from our European partners on some of these issues and the review should consider what we can learn and replicate where beneficial. The terms of reference for this fan led review in response to the European Super League are to be welcomed and touch on all the relevant issues.

But it does seem obvious that we need to settle once and for all three core questions that perhaps haven’t been discussed enough:

  • how do we ensure the next generation are living active lives?
  • how do we leverage the magic of football and the influence of its players to engender healthier lifestyles?
  • how can we properly use some of the riches of our professional game to improve our vastly underfunded and poorly maintained sports facilities?

Tracey Crouch, over to you!

 

Nick Vaughan joined MHP from 10 Downing Street where he was a Special Advisor to the Prime Minister. He was also Chairman of a Football Community Trust for three years and headed up Public Affairs at The FA.

Comms can polarise society: With great power comes great responsibility

Posted on: April 28th, 2021 by Tomas White

What is polarisation?

Polarisation can have positive effects – making us care about issues and take action. Brands can use it to provoke debate, like Ben & Jerry’s ‘Refugee rights’ campaign, which forced audiences to consider where they stand on the question of how we should treat people making their way to our shores.

But polarisation can be dangerous. Polarised groups are more susceptible to fake news, less sympathetic to the ‘out group’ and, in extremis, more willing to cause harm to others. If you believe the other side is evil, then it’s easier to justify almost anything to stop them – even storming Capitol Hill.

Communications often polarises people. More and more campaigns involve ‘taking a stand’ on an issue. This approach drives headlines and engagement – and it can change the world for the better.

Polarisation is what happens when people strongly disagree about something. It might start with healthy debate, but it can soon turn into something worse. Group identity leads to negative stereotyping about “the other side”. Eventually, we see ourselves as the good guys – and everyone else as the bad guys.

But when you stand ‘for’ something, you inevitably stand ‘against’ something – or someone. That can have unforeseen consequences. Those on the other side of the debate can harden their hearts, retreat to their echo-chambers – in, some cases, they can lash out.

You can see polarisation’s effects all around us, from the breakdown of trust between the UK and EU to furious debates about the Royal Family’s treatment of Meghan and Harry.

As the world gets more polarised, it’s time to think carefully about the consequences of our actions. After all, our industry’s darkest hour – the collapse of Bell Pottinger – was due to the abuse of the power of polarisation.

We don’t want to shut down debate

It is essential that we disagree with each other. A well-functioning society thrives on debate, and well-managed conflict is an engine for growth.

We should do bold, purposeful and provocative work, but must be careful not to make things worse.

For example, when Paddy Power campaigned against homophobia during the Russian World Cup, its biggest concern was to avoid inciting violence against the very people whose rights it was promoting.

A collaborative approach

As rival agency leaders, we believe the industry should work together to explore the ethics of polarisation and develop simple principles to inform where to draw the line.

There are three questions we think need answers:

1. What’s the difference between stoking healthy debate and feeding division?

2. What do we do in the name of making things better that actually makes things worse?

3. What are the principles that will keep communicators on the right side of the line and promote genuine understanding?

As a society, we face huge challenges, from mobilising action in the fight against climate change to reimagining our food system and building a more inclusive culture. A practical framework would help us harness communication’s power for good, without stifling creativity.

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, we’d like to hear from you.

This article was originally published in PR Week.

Spotlight on: Media Training

Posted on: April 27th, 2021 by Tomas White

One of the most striking features of the European Super League fiasco was that there wasn’t a single spokesperson ready to explain to fans, sponsors and politicians why it was a good idea.

The absence of an advocate from any of the six Premier League clubs involved left a vacuum in the media that was filled by critics united in condemnation of the project.

More importantly it signalled that no-one really believed in the plan, not even the leaders of the ‘Big Six’ clubs that had signed contracts committing them to join the Super League.

Identifying an effective spokesperson is a critical stage in any major business launch, promotional campaign, or strategic shift.

A passionate advocate will always help communicate a new project and the very process of finding a spokesperson also helps identify any potential issues.

Projects can look perfectly logical when in a written proposal, PowerPoint presentation or Excel spreadsheet, it’s often only when it is put in the mouth of a spokesperson that problems emerge.

Training a spokesperson prepares them for dealing with the media but it also helps hone the messaging around a project and tests the strategy too.

If you can’t find someone to articulate why you are doing something, you probably shouldn’t do it.

Finding your spokesperson

The stories that businesses tell, and the people who tell them, must stand up to the increasingly critical eye of the audience.

This can be a challenge when a spokesperson is the most senior person in an organisation or someone who has had little involvement with the project in question.

Depending on the situation you might need an alternative spokesperson, someone with more detailed knowledge of the sector, the financials, or the product.

The process of media training helps identify the person that will most effectively tell your story, the communicator with the potential to engage and inspire the audience.

Once the spokesperson has been identified professional coaching is essential.

Spokespeople can’t simply deliver a script. An overly practised and robotic performance will leave them exposed.

To deliver a confident, fluent and natural performance they must be prepared and equipped with the techniques they need to control an interview.

Message development

The foundation of an effective media interview is well honed messaging that resonates with the audience. The process of training a spokesperson is an opportunity to ‘stress test’ existing messaging to ensure it’s both relevant and robust under questioning.

There are two effective tests of a message. The first is to let an experienced journalist try their hardest to find holes in it. Former journalists can imitate the interview style of the reporter the spokesperson will be speaking to, they can ask tough and challenging questions and they can uncover questions that hadn’t been previously considered.

Practice sessions with journalists help build confidence in the messaging around the project or campaign and they also give the spokesperson the chance to explore the kind of language and proof points that work best for them.

The second test is audience review. Allowing an independent audience to observe and critique the performance of the messaging in a test interview gives the communications team the insight they need to craft more robust lines.

Audience review also helps identify the personality traits that a trainee needs to adjust. Do they need to enhance the hard communication traits to elevate perceived status or the soft traits that increase connectedness with an audience?

Interview training

Capably navigating a successful interview requires confidence and technique.

Media training is essential. Even the most experienced CEOs or seasoned media performers need to treat every media opportunity with caution and respect.

Being able to bridge, sidestep and signpost effectively allows a spokesperson to control an interview and projects credibility and authority.

Training allows a spokesperson to focus on communicating a story to the wider audience rather than worrying about the next question from the interviewer.

The most effective business launches or campaigns have spokesperson training built into them.

Preparation is key and confidence in the messaging essential for any spokesperson.

Learn from the European Super League. If you don’t have a spokesperson ready to articulate your launch, you’re not ready.

For more information download our brochure, visit mhpc.com/media-training or email media@mhpc.com.

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A new dawn in regulating Africa’s medicines: the African Medicines Agency

Posted on: April 26th, 2021 by Tomas White

For the vaccine roll-out to be successful in preventing future waves of infection and national lockdowns, Governments, the pharmaceutical industry and health regulators are facing the biggest challenge of their time – immunising the whole adult population from COVID-19 in a matter of months.

Progress is palpable in high-income countries; we’ve seen 50 percent of the population in the UK already vaccinated, and similar levels in Israel (60 percent) and the United States (41 percent). In fact, Governments in these countries are meeting population targets ahead of schedule, and are able to roll-out vaccines to younger, and less vulnerable people, as they move through their impressive pandemic vaccination campaigns.

But this is not the case for most of the global population.

Within the first 100 days of the global vaccine rollout marked on 9 April 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the target for COVID-19 vaccinations had not been met, with 14 countries yet to start their vaccination programmes and delays in vaccine production and delivery worldwide.

At a time when over 87% of COVID-19 vaccine doses go to high income or upper middle-income countries, the disparities between wealthy and poor-resourced countries felt by often neglected populations are now too stark not to respond; the need for new mechanisms and processes that accelerate medicine and vaccine access are undeniable.

Alongside global structures such as the ACT-A and COVAX facility, the African continent has shown remarkable leadership throughout this pandemic at a regional level. This has come in the form of strong political commitments and strong leadership from the African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC).

On the backdrop of these pandemic-specific initiatives, there are some important, systemic and sustainable steps being made – most notably, the African Medicines Agency (AMA).

The AMA aims to provide regulatory harmonisation across the African continent, safe and speedy clinical trials and simplification of the registration and commercialisation of safe and affordable medicines. It has been in fruition for many years, starting in 2009 with the establishment of the African Medicines Regulatory Harmonisation Initiative (AMRH), and the involvement of many key partners across governments, civil society, and industry. This led up to the adoption of a treaty by the African Union Assembly in 2019 to establish the AMA, which aims to enhance regulatory oversight across the continent and meet the challenges of access to quality, safe, and efficacious medicines.

Notwithstanding the complexity of improving access to medicines in the continent, strengthening national and regional regulatory systems lays the foundation to achieving timely access to quality medicines and vaccines.

However, despite Government commitments to support the establishment of the AMA, to date, only 8 member states have ratified the AMA Treaty in their national parliaments – well below the minimum of 15 Member States needed for the AMA to come into force.

MHP Health invited global expert Karrar Karrar, Access to Medicines Adviser at Save the Children UK, to share his views on the significance of the AMA for the future of access to medicines and vaccines across Africa. Karrar highlights the urgent calls that need to be made for country ratification and establishment, particularly amid the urgency of widespread COVID-19 vaccination across the world.

This is a critical moment for vaccine and wider pharmaceutical access in some of the poorest parts of the world. As well as World Immunization Week, which is calling for attention on the need for renewed focus on routine immunisation services in addition to expedited access to the COVID-19 vaccine in all corners of the world, this month the African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control  organised a conference to discuss Africa’s vaccine manufacturing for health security as just 10.73 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered on the African continent – which represents just 2 percent of the global number of people vaccinated.

Health regulatory issues were a recurring theme at the meeting as the current fragile regulatory environment has resulted in the circulation of falsified and substandard pharmaceuticals in Africa.

The COVID-19 vaccine is no exception to the rule: 2,400 doses of a fake COVID-19 vaccines were seized by Interpol in South Africa in March this year. In addition to fuelling mistrust, this situation also results in serious affordability issues as patients opt to purchase higher priced branded versions of medicines due to their perceived higher quality. Bearing in mind most people buy their medicine out of their own pockets, this situation continues to push more families and vulnerable people into poverty.

The ratification of the AMA is an urgent call to action which is still outstanding.

Global access to pharmaceuticals as a lifesaving commodity is a fundamental human right. Despite this, 2 billion people globally still lack access to medicines, with the African continent hardest hit. Africa’s pharmaceutical market is heavily reliant on imports with very little local production. The continent imports 70-90 % of the medicines it consumes, and when it comes to vaccines, imports account for 99% of volumes consumed. We have seen it play out again during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the WHO, UNICEF, CEPI and Gavi had to support 44 African countries with the COVAX programme to guarantee safe and affordable access to COVID-19 vaccines as of March 2021.

Weak or immature pharmaceutical regulatory systems across Africa adversely impact every aspect of access to medicines including availability, affordability, acceptability, accessibility, and quality of medicines. There are 54 national regulatory authorities for medical products in the continent with many lacking the technical and financial resources to perform their core regulatory functions. This has meant that WHO concentrates 90% of its regulatory strengthening work in Africa.

Could the inception and successful operationalisation of the AMA remedy Africa’s long-standing access to medicines challenges?

Pharmaceutical companies require functioning regulatory systems to operate in any jurisdiction. Before a pharmaceutical product, like the COVID-19 vaccine, can be sold in a country, it must be registered with the national regulatory agency. However due to technical and capacity constraints, national regulatory systems in LMICs often have lengthy processing times. This has hindered access to new, innovative medicines as large research-based pharmaceutical companies avoid or delay launching their new products in these countries. This can result in delays as long as 4 to 7 years compared to high-income countries. COVAX was specifically set-up to avoid delay in access to the COVID-19 vaccine by-passing long processes and windy regulatory systems in LMICs.

 Progress from pharmaceutical companies to integrate access to medicines into their business practice has been noted in the latest Access to Medicine IndexYet, over 50% of key products are still not covered by an access strategy for LMIC markets. Streamlined regulatory systems would encourage manufacturers to register their medicines in more countries and minimize delays in approval. It would also boost local production of medicines and reduce the risk of counterfeit medicines entering the African pharmaceutical market.

Now is the time

There is widespread support for the AMA among industry, patient organisations, development agencies, and Government representatives themselves. In February and March 2021, the International Alliance of Patients’ Organizations called upon Heads of State of the African Union to ratify the African Medicines Agency Treaty. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) made a similar call in January this year, describing the AMA as “the unique opportunity to become one of the most efficient and modern regulatory systems in the world.”

African governments now have the opportunity to lay the foundations to achieve a prosperous pharmaceutical ecosystem that will ensure that Africa has access to safe and affordable medicines. The operationalisation of the African Medicines Agency provides the vehicle to make this ambition a reality. With no time to waste, the health of Africa is hanging in the balance.

How The European Super League Nearly Destroyed Football

Posted on: April 26th, 2021 by Tomas White

So, you want to destroy football?

Imagine you’re the CEO of one of the world’s most successful football clubs, or Tottenham Hotspur.

You’re invited to be a founding member of a new European Super League (ESL) that promises to pay you a lot of money, but at the cost of destroying the competitive balance of club football, damaging the most loved and most valuable club competitions in the world, and robbing millions of fans of hope in the process.

What do you do? The obvious answer is: “Say no.”

Putting aside the moral issues, it was a commercially reckless plan, sure to alienate core fans in the pursuit of new ones. In the short term, more money and less risk were a superficially alluring option, but in the long term the Super League would have been a flop.

The world’s great entertainment brands and franchises, from Marvel and Harry Potter to the IPL and WWE are so valuable precisely because of the passion of their fans and the richness of their universes. In a world of infinite entertainment choice, new fans are drawn in by the core fans’ passion. Infuriating your loyal base and denuding the sport in pursuit of fluid fans and financial security is a flawed strategy. The financial backer of this plan, JP Morgan, even had its corporate sustainability rating downgraded as a result of its work on the ESL, just for good measure.

But let’s imagine that for some reason you thought this was a good idea. How would you sell the European Super League dream?

First, you need to seed the idea, long before you announce a fully-formed plan.

Controversial ideas are shocking, but over time, people can come to terms with them. You need to shift the Overton window of the debate with a series of early comments, journalist briefings, think tank reports and leaks of early drafts (which can be officially denied). These stories need to come from multiple sources in multiple markets, giving the plans a sense of grim inevitability – the natural response to market forces, rather than the work of any individual or group.

Second, you need to show that this plan has been developed in response to something bigger than your own commercial ambitions.

The most trusted innovations are those which solve a societal need, so what problem was the Super League supposed to solve? There was no evidence base or independent research to persuade politicians, no vision to inspire fans.

The pandemic has inflicted grievous damage to club finances, but this story was hardly told. To grow quickly, the women’s game will need significant investment from the clubs, but the ESL treated women’s football as an afterthought. In the absence of a clear rationale from the clubs, greed was the only motive that stuck.

Third, you need to pick your moment.

The news leaked just before the plan to reform the UEFA Champions League was due to be unveiled. The result of a period of protracted wrangling between the clubs and UEFA, the publication of the Champions League plan was bound to leave many fans and commentators fuming, especially as UEFA is already reviled by many.

Had the ESL’s backers waited for UEFA to launch its plan, the clubs could have unleashed their managers and players to complain about congested fixture lists, exhausted players and exploited fans – engineering a sense of crisis, to which the Super League was a necessary solution. Instead, they handed UEFA the moral high ground and the ESL plan was evaluated only in comparison to the status quo.

Fourth, you need to acknowledge the downsides of your plan and offer some mitigating measures. The English Premier League revolution of the 1990s was enabled by the offer of parachute payments to relegated clubs and funding for the grassroots game via The Football Foundation. Where was the package of measures to support clubs who would not be part of this new closed shop or to help cash-starved community football across Europe? The offer of five qualifying places each year to other leading clubs was derisory.

Finally, you need powerful voices, speaking in unison. The European Super League had no spokespeople or advocates who could offer some balance to critics like ex-Manchester United player Gary Neville or UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who delivered arguments of devastating power and clarity. The ESL needed former players and coaches on its side – people steeped in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French football culture, able to lend their credibility to the project. Instead, the group hid behind a press release.

The challenge of course, is that anyone trusted by fans would be reluctant to jeopardise their reputation by supporting a plan so antithetical to the spirit of the game – as Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp showed when they publicly disavowed the plans supported by their employers. Without prominent advocates from the world of football, the faces of the ESL plan were instead American businessmen, oligarchs and investment bankers. Not ideal.

Could better communications have saved the European Super League? Probably not. A bad idea, well told, is still a bad idea. However, an effective strategy might have slowed the momentum behind the backlash and stiffened the resolve of the clubs involved.

Fans can count themselves lucky that football is such a leaky industry and the European Super League was so poorly prepared before kick-off.

This article was originally shared on Provoke Media.

Leading Fintech Plaid Appoints MHP Mischief in Europe

Posted on: April 21st, 2021 by Tomas White

Plaid is the world’s leading open banking platform focussed on democratising financial services through technology. Its range of intelligent tools and developer friendly API solutions enable clients to develop new financial products, services and experiences with the potential to revolutionise the industry and deliver better outcomes for consumers and businesses.

MHP Mischief will support Plaid in its UK and European business, building understanding around both its proposition and the power of open finance amongst existing providers, new market entrants and policy and regulatory stakeholders.

The MHP Mischief team draws on expertise from both its Financial Services and Public Affairs practices, and will be led by the agency’s Head of Financial Services, Nick Woods. It sees the agency add to its impressive fintech client base that includes cryptocurrency platform Coinbase, over the top banking platform Curve, Turkish neobank Papara and investment powerhouse Reech Corporation Group.

 

Commenting, Nick Woods, MHP Mischief’s Head of Financial Services said:

“We’re delighted to have been appointed by Plaid at such an exciting period in its growth. The business is a true market disruptor, powering industry innovation at a time when many established incumbents and new market entrants are recognising the power of open finance to meet a changing set of post-pandemic financial needs. We thrive on telling the bigger stories shaping the sector and Plaid are at the forefront of this.”

Keith Grose, Head of International at Plaid said:

“Fintech is the new normal for most people and the inevitable future of a digital and connected financial system. While examples of digital finance are everywhere today, the true transformation is just getting started. We’re excited to work with MHP Mischief to help companies in the UK and across Europe understand what is possible through Plaid and our partners.”

Demonstrating the value of ESG

Posted on: April 20th, 2021 by Tomas White

Key Themes

1. Use of ESG targets

 

 

 

 

In line with the growing prominence of ESG matters more generally, ESG targets are increasingly being linked to executive pay. In March 2021, PwC published a joint report assessing the case for ESG-related pay within FTSE100 companies, providing a checklist for Boards and a framework for creating an effective and enduring ESG performance measure. It found that 45% of FTSE100 companies link ESG targets to pay; Social targets are the most prevalent in annual bonuses and Environmental targets in long-term incentive plans, with the prevalence of specific ESG targets varying between sectors. Despite this link between remuneration and ESG-related goals, ESG targets typically accounted for only 10-20% weighting of total bonus rewards for both FTSE100 and FTSE250 companies in 2020 (Willis Towers Watson). Nonetheless, there has been a clear shift in policies to incorporate wider sustainability and CSR issues, including diversity, communities, plastic reduction and decarbonisation. While reaching these targets is a step in the right direction to becoming more sustainable, it could be misleading if such targets are under-ambitious, and primarily set to greenwash and justify bonuses; expect shareholders to be scrutinising such developments very closely.

2. Focus remains on the Social aspect of ESG

 

 

 

 

Media focus on the importance of mental health, flexibility, work-life balance and both trusting and empowering employees has notably increased, with recent events demonstrating the impact of this development. In February, KPMG ex-UK Chair Bill Michael was forced to resign after telling staff to ‘stop moaning’ about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on pay and performance criteria. More recently, working conditions for investment banking analysts came into focus after a revolt by junior bankers at Goldman Sachs went viral on social media. Recent research has even gone so far as to suggest that almost a fifth of British companies are considering moving to a four-day week. Despite the difficulties of the past year, one silver lining could be the lasting positive impact in the form of an empowered, more flexible and more productive workforce.

When it comes to corporate disclosure, UK PLCs are lagging this trend. According to FTSE Russell, whilst 60-70% of large-midsized companies provide data on environmental items, only 5-15% disclose ‘social’ elements like staff retention, turnover and training. At the same time, the risk of misjudging the importance of such issues has become increasingly obvious.

For this to change, investors will have to move the dial. The headlines and subsequent performance of Deliveroo’s controversial IPO centred around the poor treatment of its delivery riders, with high profile investors shunning the deal for this reason. In truth, there were likely a variety of reasons why these investors didn’t want to invest, but nonetheless, such gig economy, high-valued ‘tech’ stocks may find themselves having to pay more attention to their social responsibilities if they want to succeed as public companies.

The City snubbing Deliveroo’s IPO is notably juxtaposed to Rishi Sunak’s plans to lure tech firms to list in London by loosening the listing rules, and is clear confirmation that investors are not willing to ignore ESG-related issues when looking to deploy capital. This trend has surely been impacted by Covid-19, but isn’t going to fade away as lockdown restrictions lift; the social impact a businesses has is – more than ever – closely scrutinised, and integral to shareholder value creation.

3. Key theme to watch: Shareholder activism on ESG

 

 

 

 

Perhaps a lasting legacy of 2020 and Covid-19, of which there are likely to be many, will be that of a year in which the trend of shareholder activism relating to ESG issues was significantly and likely irrevocably accelerated. Across the market, there are numerous recent examples whereby shareholders have put pressure on corporates in order to enact change, particularly where boards are seen to be failing stakeholders in their roles as stewards of responsibly run companies. Issues such as repayment of furlough monies and business rates relief, gender and racial diversity, remuneration and proper environmental disclosures have really come to the fore over the last 12 months.

It is not a new phenomenon for the most vocal institutions to extoll the virtues of companies that demonstrate good ESG credentials (think Larry Fink at BlackRock), but the volume of voices is becoming harder to ignore. The influence of shareholder activism on UK PLC is clearly growing; consider the difficulties faced by Tesco and Boohoo in recent months as investors took direct action regarding remuneration, disclosure on sales targets for healthy products, and supply chain concerns. Further shareholder revolts are expected as we head into the AGM season.

To note a couple of examples, recent data from Legal & General confirmed they have actively voted against 37.5% of remuneration polices last year, as well as against 57 directors sitting on remuneration committees, whilst Janus Henderson recently wrote to all investee companies noting that continued inaction on certain issues will lead to it voting against dividend payments and chairman re-elections, among other issues.

With such increased scrutiny, the window for companies to take a lacklustre approach to ESG is quickly closing, with investors, employees and other stakeholders favouring those with better ESG credentials.

 

Recommendations

  • Make sure disclosures clarify how shareholder value is driven by your approach to ESG
  • Disclosure of ESG factors should include reference to Social factors as well
  • Include measurable targets on ESG to allow investors to track progress
  • Ensure a consistent narrative runs throughout your owned channels; conflicting messaging speaks to a lack of overall direction on sustainability
  • Make use of digital channels to create a constant drumbeat of ESG-related news
  • Is ESG truly embedded in your company’s culture? If not, consider ways to amend the business’s purpose

Interesting developments over the quarter

Client in Focus

In each edition of ESG Insights, we will profile one of our clients who is leading the way in communicating its ESG credentials to stakeholders.

This month we are pleased to highlight Marshalls, the FTSE250 specialist Landscape Products group, who started its sustainability journey over 20 years ago and has since continued to integrate ESG within the core of its business – reflective of a Board that truly has ESG as part of its DNA.

Please click here to read more about Marshall’s’ recently published ESG update, which provides a detailed review on the company’s approach to sustainability and how it has been communicating its ESG credentials.

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MHP Capital Markets provides strategic financial communications advice to private and public companies across a range of sectors. We advise companies on all aspects of their engagement with the capital markets, from financial reporting, M&A, IPOs and fundraisings to corporate profile raising activity, ESG communications and reputation management. Please do get in touch at esg@mhpc.com

2021 Elections Preview

Posted on: April 19th, 2021 by Tomas White

2021 Elections Preview

 (PDF)

With last year’s local elections delayed a year due to COVID-19 and combined with those originally intended to take place this spring, this set of elections will represent the first serious electoral test in this Parliament for the Government and the new leaders of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Though the pandemic delayed confirmation of when these elections would take place – and led to speculation that different elections could be held on different days – the continued success of the vaccination programme has meant that campaigning could still take place, albeit with certain restrictions including during the period of national mourning following the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

On paper, the Conservatives approaching the start of their twelfth year in power and Labour’s disappointing performances the last time these elections were contested in 2016 and 2017 should both augur well for Sir Keir Starmer (at least in contests in England).

Yet talk at the moment is dominated not by the prospect of Labour gains but the impact that the Government’s ‘vaccine bounce’ in the polls will have. Should this translate into actual votes in May, and with current polling also suggesting a Labour retreat in Scotland and possibly also in Wales, Labour may be forced to look to the council and mayoral elections in England’s larger cities for any unalloyed good news on election night.

However lopsided the results in Labour’s favour may be there, it will be the main parties’ performances in councils across provincial England that will inform early speculation regarding the horse race for the next general election. Two of the highest profile mayoral contests – in the West Midlands and Tees Valley – both of which the Conservatives won narrowly in 2017 and include Westminster seats which flipped in 2019 – will also be closely scrutinised for how opinion in the ‘Red Wall’ is shifting.

Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats will be eyeing gains in pro-remain parts of the south of England where the party has performed well in the past two general elections. With the Conservatives currently enjoying large majorities on many of these councils, there should be scope for Lib Dem advances here even if the Conservatives are successfully holding off Labour across most of the rest of England.

Given the current state of play, there is a real risk of these elections confirming the current political landscape rather than anything more dramatic. With the SNP – despite recent troubles – still the strong favourites to be running Scotland after May, the only burning question on election night could be how the final results will fall in Wales, where current polling suggests that a revival of a Labour-Plaid Cymru government (which governed Wales from 2007 to 2011) could be on the cards.

If the Government performs strongly – due to a ‘vaccine bounce’ or other factors – expect the PM to use any newfound political capital from this and the recovery from COVID-19 to launch an ambitious domestic agenda for the rest of the Parliament (likely in the form of a mid-May Queen’s Speech and a reshuffle) and the current whispers against Keir Starmer’s leadership to grow louder.

Should Labour exceed expectations (which are helpfully set quite low), increasing concern on the Government’s backbenches could make for a trickier summer and autumn for Boris Johnson, particularly if the Chancellor ends up asking Conservative MPs to vote for further tax rises later in the year to help public services meet demand that has been pent-up during the pandemic.

You can read our full briefing previewing the forthcoming local and devolved elections by clicking here.