Posts Tagged ‘IR 2.0 – Web & social media’

Websites – not the only channel

May 27, 2010

Nearly two years after the SEC issued guidance on use of company websites for disclosure, a survey of investor relations professionals by the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) reports few have changed their web disclosure practices.

In August 2008 the SEC – before the near-meltdown of our entire financial system captured its full attention – issued an interpretive release on use of web-based media to fulfill Regulation FD disclosure responsibilities. (Read SEC guidance here.)

The essence of the SEC guidance, carrying out then-Chairman Chris Cox’s agenda to bring disclosure methods into the 21st Century, was to let companies know they can establish their websites as the place for investors to find material news. That set off speculation (and some advocacy) that companies would stop issuing press releases and possibly abandon other channels of disclosure. It hasn’t happened.

According to NIRI’s survey of about 200 senior IR people, 93% have not changed the role of their websites – and only 7% have – since the SEC guidance. NIRI adds, “the 7% who did make changes … are using more channels, not fewer.”

To be sure, more companies are encouraging investors to visit their websites – building the email alert lists through the sites, putting the web address on all materials, issuing advisory releases to direct people to the sites, and the like.

About 90% of the respondents file 8-Ks and issue news releases through paid wire services to get material news out to the market. (The IROs reported median annual cost of $25,000 for issuing press releases.) After those two channels come conference calls, email alerts, RSS feeds and social media.

A few companies are pushing the envelope. Google created ripples in the IR community by reporting Q1 earnings on its IR website in April – and not providing a detailed release through a newswire. A 3-sentence alert through a newswire did point market participants to the website posting:

Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) has released its first quarter 2010 financial results. Please visit Google’s investor relations website at http://investor.google.com to view the earnings release. Google intends to make future announcements regarding its financial performance exclusively through its investor relations website.

Google’s move stirred some controversy. Reuters clucked that this “unorthodox” approach “raises questions.” Dominic Jones of IR Web Report sprang to GOOG’s defense and went after Reuters. I’ve heard other IR people give varying opinions.

My feeling? Google can do whatever it wants, of course. I view company news more from a communication standpoint than a legal one. For most companies, the goal should be to reach as many investors and other stakeholders as possible with earnings or another announcement. I would add channels, not cut them off.

At this stage, having your press release feed automatically into Bloomberg screens, Yahoo! Finance and all those other channels (even Google search) seems desirable. Transparency includes making it easy to find your information. Requiring an investor to visit your website, adding clicks to the process, or pushing more people to read news filtered through reporters for Reuters or Bloomberg, seems limiting.

I’m all for robust websites. As I’ve said before (see “The website: your front door”), IROs should view a company site as the potential investor’s entry point to engage the business. We should evaluate the experience a person has approaching that front door – and benchmark how we do providing information, creating impressions and inviting interaction. Ease of use and transparency should characterize a website. But the site isn’t the only channel.

What’s your opinion on the place of websites in good disclosure? Comment below.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Social media old & new

December 22, 2009

Christmas cards are the old social media – of the printing press era. But they say something to us about the new social media – our current interactive networks.

Personally, I love sending and receiving greetings this time of year. It’s a chance to touch old friends and colleagues with a personal wish of peace and well-being. I even like reading Christmas letters of faraway friends for news of their families and work lives.

A Wall Street Journal column on the history of Christmas cards this weekend made me reflect on how far we’ve come since Henry Cole printed up and mailed the first Christmas cards back in 1843. (No, Hallmark didn’t invent seasonal greetings.)

What’s this have to do with investor relations? Consider …

  • Relationships are built by communicating with people, repeatedly, often in different ways, over time. A Christmas card may be one touch. An email note or “retweet” on Twitter another. A phone call or one-on-one even better.
  • Social media are like Christmas cards. To play, you have to commit time and resources. You can’t say we’re going to do interactive media and then not put in the time – it’s like intending to send Christmas cards, but never getting to it.
  • Personal messages, even short ones, speak volumes. Just as the seasonal card is about letting someone know you’re thinking of them, any note or call tells an investor (or in-house colleague, for that matter) that you care.

So now’s the time to start on “social media” for 2010, whether your plan is to tweet your earnings, blog your strategy, engage in online conversations on your industry, upgrade your website, or just touch more people personally in the new year.

Oh, by the way, if you celebrate Christmas – Merry Christmas! If it’s a different holiday, best wishes in this beautiful season and all the best for the new year!

This space not for sale

October 9, 2009

NoSaleSignThe Federal Trade Commission this week jumped into a controversy that has been swirling in social media circles: “Pay for play” – the practice of companies or PR agencies paying bloggers, Twitterers and other online “influentials” to endorse or mention their products or services.

This FTC action focuses on people selling products – not pitching stocks. But the intervention in the online marketing world has important implications for online promoters of investments, as well. More on the investor relations side in a moment.

What the FTC did was announce new guidelines requiring disclosure if companies pay online chatterers, or give them free products, for endorsements. (FTC announcement here, old media take on it here.) So faking a word-of-mouth or “viral” phenomenon gets a bit harder. FTC explains:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. … And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

For the record, this space is not for sale, regardless of FTC guidance. I have, in fact, received a couple of offers from IR service providers – but getting a paycheck isn’t the reason I’ve chosen to take part in the conversation through IR Café.

My ethic comes from years of working in the Old Journalism of daily newspapers. When I was a young reporter, one of the newsroom characters was a City Hall reporter known for, among other things, refusing to take a donut at the weekly City Council meeting because he never wanted to place his objectivity in doubt. A journalist who accepted freebies from someone he covered would be drawn and quartered, usually in a public flogging through a news story about his termination.

So I got the message: Journalism is about delivering information for the readers’ benefit; advertising is about being paid to deliver messages for advertisers’ benefit. Publishing ads is all well and good. But if you want credibility, the lines should not be blurred – as they increasingly are, both online and in traditional media.

I value credibility more than a buck, which is why I headline a post “This space not for sale.” If our firm tries to sell you something, you’ll know it.

Now, I have mixed feelings about the FTC sticking its nose into what has been a wide-open space on the Internet. Does freedom of speech extend to someone tweeting “Wow U have to try this new digicam from CoolVideo.com, best ever and an awesome Christmas gift, too!!!!!”  I don’t know, that’s marketing … or maybe constitutional law … a question above my pay grade, as the President says.

When it comes to investor relations, I have a clear opinion: Pay for play is not a good idea. Investors are smart enough to see through a paid profile in a publication or website aimed at investors, and it can hurt rather than help the company’s credibility. And people shouldn’t be touting stocks online (or touting the short side) for pay, period. Companies and IR or PR firms should steer completely clear of that practice – regardless of regulation. It’s a matter of integrity and credibility.

Securities laws outlaw market manipulation and misleading information, of course. I’m no expert on the Securities and Exchange Commission, but as interactive media play a growing role in capital markets, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the SEC take direct action to require disclosure of payments to bloggers or other online chatterers – just as analyst reports must disclose the i-banks’ interests in companies covered. It might even help clean up the markets.

What’s your opinion on the integrity – and freedom – of online discussions?

Not feeling ‘social’

October 5, 2009

Forty-nine percent of companies do not have a specific approach or policy on employees’ use of social media on behalf of the companies, according to a survey reported in the October 2009 PR Week (link here, but requires subscription).

Jim Tsokanos, president of North America for MS&L, a PR firm that sponsored the survey with PR Week, comments:

When we live in the world of the empowered consumer and everyone has a point of view, and they share it at the speed of light, for companies to not have policies in place to guide how social media can be utilized by their employees, I thought was very interesting.

You can tell he’s in PR: Dangerous might be a better word for half the companies lacking policies on social media use. The risk is especially acute for public companies, who could face serious disclosure issues or ethical breaches in a tweet.

As I’ve suggested before in IR Café, public companies need to develop policies on who can use social media to discuss the business and guidelines for how. (Links to examples of social media policies at this post.)

Investor relations professionals ought to offer input on social media, at least to address the defensive compliance issue – and, getting radical here, also to include the financial community proactively among audiences served via social media.

Looks mainstream to me

September 8, 2009

If you’re still wondering if social media are too far “out there” to consider using for your company, think again. As Exhibits 1 & 2 for the idea that social media have become mainstream for corporations talking to investors (among other audiences), consider Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

These two mega cap pharmaceutical companies, despite regulatory hurdles, legal worries and their status as conservative blue chip companies, are getting out there in the world of Web 2.0. Regardless of what business you’re in, you may be interested in comments from their execs as reported in Medical Marketing & Media:

JNJ began dipping its toe in social media three years ago and has been getting more involved since, media relations director Marc Monseau says in the August 2009 issue of MM&M. Now JNJ has a corporate blog, JNJBTW, a Twitter account @JNJComm, a JNJ YouTube channel and so on.

“It hasn’t been easy, and there certainly have been some stumbles along the way,” Monseau tells MM&M. He shares some lessons learned:

  • Understand your audience. Begin by listening in online communities.
  • Start small. Try out some low-risk activities in social media.
  • Work with legal. Address those regulatory concerns by working together.

Most of the social media effort is soft-sell marketing about health issues, but JNJ has done some interesting things in IR – such as live blogging its annual meeting on Twitter. You might think dishing up an annual meeting in three dozen 140-character tweets borders on silly, especially since people could hear it live on a webcast. But JNJ, like many companies, is experimenting to see what works best.

Pfizer is newer to social media. In the September 2009 MM&M, Ray Kerins, PFE’s VP of worldwide communications, talks about launching on Twitter (@Pfizer_News):

We’re trying to become transparent, but we’re doing it slowly and cautiously. For us to jump in with two feet would be stupid.

First step for Pfizer was monitoring Twitter, then being sure the right people were on staff to implement social media tactics, Kerins says. PFE has only been on Twitter for seven weeks, but already about 2,000 people are following – getting tweets ranging from earnings and merger updates to links to news stories on PFE.

Other companies do social media, too – and JNJ and PFE weren’t pioneers in IR 2.0, as some tech companies were. But their learning can contribute to our learning.

New feature: ‘Browse by topic’

July 27, 2009

Over the weekend I tinkered with this blog a bit to add an index by subjects – under the heading “Browse by topic” in the right-hand column.

Not a big change and not sexy looking, just a small enhancement aiming to make IR Café more useful and easier to navigate. The idea is that if you’re interested in, say, M&A communications you can click on that and get an archive of posts relating to that subject – without a whole lot of clicking around.

In the process, I made subject names more specific for all past posts. Of course, you can still use the search box in the upper right to search by key word – for example, earnings guidance or conference calls, which aren’t separate subjects.

Two goals for anyone with influence over a website are to make it useful and usable. As investor relations professionals, we should regularly look at our company websites to see if we can improve the IR sections against those standards.

Please let me know if this minor change helps you – or certainly if it causes any unintended problems. By all means, pass along any ideas for improvements.

IR Café: one year & counting

June 12, 2009

iStock_8241130_CupcakeToday marks one year since I began writing IR Café. The blog is a way to contribute to the conversation in the investor relations profession, exchange ideas with colleagues, clarify my own thoughts, and reach out to IR people I might not otherwise meet.

How very gratifying! Among the results:

  • Experimenting with social media – and the interrelationships among blogs, search engines, Twitter, websites and so on – is an exciting learning experience.
  • Just over 9,000 visitors have looked at IR Café to date. It’s averaging 30 a day in 2009. Not big numbers by web standards – but a lot more people than I normally see in a day or a year.
  • I’ve spoken or traded emails with IR people across the US and Europe – as well as Brazil, India, Israel and Russia. And I’ve met some in person, a warm affirmation that “the network” actually consists of real people.
  • While I’m still a newbie, I am having some fun.

Thanks to each of you for reading, commenting or reaching out to get in touch.

And now I’m going to sip on a mug of coffee and think about what’s next. Please send me your thoughts or suggestions for IR Café.

A resource menu on IR 2.0

June 7, 2009

We’ve prepared a sampling of resources & websites on web media and interactive investor relations for the “Trends in Media and Technology” session at the NIRI 2009 Annual Conference in South Florida, June 8, 2009.

Because it’s a long list, you’ll find this in a separate blog page linked here or at right under “IR 2.0 – A Menu.”

This menu isn’t all-inclusive … just a starting point for investor relations people exploring new technologies and connections in web and social media. Hope it’s useful to you. Please share any thoughts, comments or questions.

Twitter for IR? Think before tweeting

June 3, 2009

twitter_logo_headerTwitter tops the list of hottest social media and is generating lots of “gee whiz” stories in the press. But is Twitter the right bird for investor relations?

We should think before tweeting. Take Twitter seriously, but think strategically.

In case you were dozing, Twitter is the rapidly growing 3-year-old networking site where users “microblog” in 140-character messages. Tweets range from “Taking the cat out now” personal chat to “Buy, buy, buy!” self-promotion. Lots of links to articles and blog posts. Some spam and porn. Some actual conversation, where two or more people talk to each other instead of at each other.

Twitter users connect to one another and can send direct messages, which seem close to taking the place of email among some devoted Twitterers.

Twitter doesn’t disclose the exact number of users, but Compete.com, a web monitoring service, estimated 19 million unique visitors to Twitter in April. By a wide margin, Twitter is the most talked-about brand in online chatter, according to Social Radar, a social media monitoring service.

The Harvard Business blog published an interesting study on Twitter this week. Analyzing a sample of 300,000 Twitter users, HBS found that a typical Twitter user contributes very rarely – the median user has made 1 lifetime tweet. The most active 10% of users generate 90% of the tweets. The authors comment:

This implies that Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.

Companies use Twitter to market their brands, listen to people’s uncensored comments on those brands, search for consumer complaints and respond proactively to help people deal with product problems – and to disseminate news.

Are investors – our audience in IR – using Twitter? Certainly, though the evidence is anecdotal. The financial newsbyte service @stocktwits claims 75,000 followers. The SEC is on Twitter @SEC_News. Companies are using Twitter to provide news – and attracting followers, some of whom are investors, to connect on this platform. Tweeting a link to a news release seems like another form of email alert.

Corporate activity on Twitter remains experimental. Some companies are hitting just the right voice – moving from announcing new products to resolving customer service issues to linking to earnings releases. Twitter is playing a role in the viral spread of nasty news or complaints, and in corporate responses to crises. One company live-blogged its annual meeting in 140-character snippets, which didn’t compare too well with actually hearing it on a webcast. Some posts are very casual in tone, some formal. A corporate user needs to find a good balance, I think.

On the other hand, a part of our audience is gathering information via Twitter – and potentially having conversations about our companies. Certainly, we should listen in (designating someone to search Twitter, or hiring a web-monitoring service).

And we should be addressing strategic questions: Would this help us connect with our audience? What would we say? How could we integrate a conversation with investors and outreach to other audiences ? Do we have the people resources to do this? Would Twitter as a tactic add value to our IR strategy? 

I’d love to get your reactions – here or @StrategicComm on Twitter.

Swatting a gadfly with a cannon

April 14, 2009

Keeping a sense of perspective can protect you  from embarrassment, and this holds true in the chaotic world of social media. Goldman Sachs seems to have lost track of what’s important by sending its lawyers after a blogger who is criticizing the company – a “corporate gadfly.”

A gadfly, you know, is a little person with no power but a big mouth (or pen). He complains of some perceived wrong, and pretty much no one listens, unless … well, you can be the judge of the complaints in this case.

This story starts with Mike Morgan, a Florida investment adviser and real estate broker, setting up a blog in March called GoldmanSachs666.com. The name tells you where he’s coming from. Many of America’s corporate giants have spawned critics in the blogosphere – it’s a place outside the control of corporate giants.

But who would have read the 666 guy’s blog? I don’t see anything too interesting. He has posted about 30 times in the three and a half weeks it’s been up, offering conspiracy speculation and links to other blogs and news stories. I can’t find a disclosure of his personal or business agenda, why he’s going after Goldman Sachs.

Then Goldman – actually, its Wall Street law firm – threw down the gauntlet by sending him a cease-and-desist letter claiming he’s violating their trademark by using the company name in his URL. I’m no lawyer and don’t know the legal merits of their position. But this comes across like trying to shut up a critic.

That salvo encouraged Morgan to go into full attack mode. Besides encouraging blog readers to alert the media to his story, he’s filed a pre-emptive suit claiming the GoldmanSachs666 blog is posting news and commentary, not infringing their service mark. Some financial bloggers and the UK’s Telegraph are covering the case. Morgan is recruiting volunteers online, planning a media conference call and so on. He’s campaigning to become a cause celebre.

I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of Goldman’s contacts with the 666 guy. In general, companies should do one of two things about a corporate protester, online or on the street outside the office:

  • Look for a way to engage and mollify the critic. Go the extra mile in person or by phone to see if there’s a grievance that can be solved, meet with him, offer respectful and factual answers or see where he’s coming from. Or if he seems intractable …
  • Ignore the gadfly, while preparing message points to rapidly respond to the criticism. If the negative chatter spreads to other venues or threatens the company’s business or reputation, provide your message points quickly but one-on-one. Don’t issue a press release or file a lawsuit (both of which just turn up the volume). Answer reporters’ inquiries in a noncombative way. And perhaps comment directly on other blog or Twitter posts as they arise, especially if they overlap into your own social media constituency.

But taking aim with the legal cannons seems to be the surest way to make a big noise and get the wrong kind of attention. It’s like calling the police to arrest someone carrying a picket sign outside the office – guaranteed to make the evening news. Goldman Sachs, with all else that is on its plate these days, has more important things to do.


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