What’s of note about the British way

Whether it’s running an effective corporate site or fighting their corner online, UK-based companies need not hide behind characteristic modesty, David Bowen says.

Featured sites

As the last of my ponderings on this year’s FT Bowen Craggs Index, I want to talk about a subject I have been avoiding. Which is that the country that comes out of the ranking best is the United Kingdom.
As a Brit, I may be in denial about this. We don’t like to blow our own trumpets, we take care to do badly in the World Cup and I certainly don’t want to be accused of having a pro-UK bias. More substantially, I can point out that two of our main reviewers are American and that we also use Chinese, Japanese and Russian (or rather Uzbek) analysts.
But I can’t get away from the fact that the top 10 includes two British companies (BP, AstraZeneca), two of mixed parentage but with the web run from the UK (Unilever, RioTinto) as well as Shell, which is run by an Anglo-Dutch team. British American Tobacco, Vodafone and GlaxoSmithKline are all in the top 25, while the worst-performing UK company, BG Group, is ranked 39 out of the Index’s 75 constituent companies.
It’s quite impressive, but is it significant? The most obvious suggestion is that we do in fact have a pro-UK bias. We have worked for several of the featured companies over the years, but we have also worked for many groups from other countries. We would be foolish to favour anyone – as we now make our entire analysis available in a database, web managers would soon spot us for knaves. More importantly, our methodology makes it difficult to be less than fair.

The heritage factors

So, looking at the sites, is there are anything they appear to have in common? Not obviously, but there are some metrics where UK companies do particularly well: integration of the web estate, visual design, corporate governance, serving CSR (corporate social responsibility) professionals, serving investment analysts who follow the company and serving graduate jobseekers. And there are some where they are weaker: search engine, serving the media, serving customers.
Some of this is easy to decode. The professionalisation of CSR – putting value on non-financial factors – has strong roots in the UK. London has its own online investor relations industry, which grew out of the powerful financial PR establishment. And the graduate recruitment business is well-developed in the UK.
As a former journalist, I can also explain the relative weakness on the media side. The British journalist is conservative by nature and often moves on into the press office of large corporations – which means press officers are not only conservative, but also often older than their media clients.
The weakness on the customer side, compared particularly with the Americans, is largely one of governance. Our surveys show that both in the US and in Europe responsibility for the web lies with corporate communications. The difference is that in the US corporate comms is likely to be a sub-division of marketing, whereas in Europe it stands separate. That explains why the customer service metric is dominated by US companies and why some of those that do best in it (step forward Apple) also offer a pretty awful service to investors, journalists and so on.
The border between marketing and corporate comms will (certainly should) fade, partly because it makes no sense online, but in the meantime, the division shows up in our Index.

Established virtues

Switching back to the positive, governance must be the biggest factor behind the overall strong performance of UK companies. Perhaps because they started relatively early, their web teams tend to be well-established and experienced. Shell’s web boss has been running the show since 2000 and he is senior – it shows in the way the web estate is coordinated to a degree most companies could only dream of.
Then, of course, there are the agencies. The UK has a strong tradition of graphic design and this comes across in frequently unusual approaches that make it difficult to say there is a ‘British look’. Two examples: Rio Tinto is bold and quite unlike any other corporate site – the rule book has been torn up and it works; AstraZeneca dares to show patients looking thoroughly miserable. You can’t imagine that on a marketing-owned site and, whether you like it or not, you can’t deny it’s different.

Where BP made the right moves

While I am on Britain, an update on British Petroleum, as BP now finds itself frequently called. I wrote about its use of the internet a week after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and have been following it obsessively since.
The most striking shift concentration away from the Joint Information Center site, deepwaterhorizonrresponse.com, towards bp.com itself. The ownership of the JIC site was unclear (it carried BP’s logo, but also those of other companies and US agencies). It looked as though BP at first wanted to keep the spotlight off itself and then, as the CEO, Tony Hayward, put himself in the firing line, it pulled it deliberately onto itself.
There may have been an element of that, but it was more to do with the way US law lays down the approach, with something called Unified Command theoretically controlling information through the JIC site. It became unwieldy, which is why BP started posting more information directly. If you want to know more, read Crisisblogger – it is written by the founder of PIER Systems, on whose technology the JIC site runs.
Similarly there was a shift from the JIC’s social media sites (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) towards BP’s. The ease with which they were all naturally integrated shows that some corporations at least see the web and ‘the new stuff’ as part and parcel of the same thing. As it should be.
The decision to put a live feed from underwater cameras on BP’s home page will, I think, be a positive note in the great reputation trial the group will have to undergo. It shows a slightly mad openness – and is all the better for that.
In fact, BP’s entire online response has been good (the fuzziness between deepwaterhorizonresponse.com and bp.com is the exception) and provides a powerful case study for terrified communications departments everywhere.

First published 28 July, 2010
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