Google gags on Q3 snafu

In the “Things Could Be Worse Department,” an investor relations nightmare struck Google Inc. today: Not only did third-quarter 2012 earnings decline and miss expectations, an unfinished draft of GOOG’s Q3 release was filed prematurely on the SEC’s EDGAR website, triggering a big sell-off before trading was halted.

“I think this is probably the worst technical screw-up I’ve seen in an earnings release in 20 years. I can’t think of anything as bad. I mean, clearly this was a premature release – it was put up on EDGAR prematurely. It even has boilerpate text in it that says, ‘PENDING LARRY QUOTE,’ ” said Bloomberg contributor Paul Kedrosky, a Kauffman Foundation fellow and blogger at Infectious Greed. “The result, however, combined with how poor the numbers actually are, is pretty dire.”

Oh, yes, pretty dire. GOOG closed down 8% on nearly five times average volume, a haircut of about $20 billion for shareholders. No telling whether the stock price would have reacted as violently if bad earnings had been released in a more orderly way – say, after the market closed.

So Google is the lead news story on all the financial sites – with headlines like “Google results, filed by mistake, miss; shares dive” (Reuters), and “Live: the Google Earnings Disaster” (live blogging on WSJ.com). And, of course, the tribulations are even trending No. 1 on Google Finance.

The erroneous press release from EDGAR may become a collector’s item, something to post over your desk as a warning:

It will take time to sort out what all went wrong. Google blamed the early release on R.R. Donnelley, the financial printer that does a lot digital work for IR departments. No doubt there will be further statements and explanations.

For now, what is certain is that “Google – October 18, 2012” will become a case study for investor relations officers in the future. A case of what not to do.

And each of us working on Q3 earnings for other companies should remember, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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