Archive for the ‘IR 2.0 – Web & social media’ Category

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?

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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.

Don’t be ACORNed

September 28, 2009

Regardless of your politics, it’s clear that what happened to the activist group ACORN this month is an extraordinary case study in Web 2.0 and the rapid loss of reputation. It’s a new media nightmare.

Before answering “What’s this got to do with IR?” here’s a recap of the action:

acornACORN is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. An advocate for the poor, labor and liberal causes, ACORN organizes voter registration drives, demonstrations and efforts to influence government or pressure businesses. While controversial and oft-accused of improprieties, ACORN has won victories against big companies and been an ally of some top Democratic leaders.

Along came two politically motivated social media types, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. Like other 20-somethings, O’Keefe has been producing videos for the Web – in his case, needling liberals. Giles, a 20-year-old college sophomore, got in touch with O’Keefe with an idea to go after ACORN with a made-up event.

The two concocted a scenario to test the community organizers’ integrity. O’Keefe would play the role of a pimp and Giles a prostitute. The pair gathered a few props, went on the road with a hidden camera, and set out to entrap ACORN.

Visiting ACORN offices in DC, New York, Baltimore, San Diego and San Bernadino, O’Keefe and Giles told ACORN counselors they needed advice on getting a house for the prostitution biz, hiding income from the IRS, avoiding police detection, and smuggling underage girls into the country to use as prostitutes.

The poseurs got their shocker. Some of the ACORN officials went along, seemingly ignoring the illegality and morally outrageous nature of acts they were discussing. The videos show ACORN people casually giving advice for how best to carry out and conceal the purported illegal enterprise. “Pimp” and “prostitute” seemed to be treated like any other client.

BigGovernment.com, a new conservative website, linked up with O’Keefe and Giles and used their sensationalized attack videos to create momentum for its September launch on the Internet. It’s been a success: The ACORN videos went viral, with links from a host of blogs and tweets; they were huge on YouTube; the slam on ACORN struck a chord with conservative talk hosts; and the controversy crossed over into mainstream media. Within days, Congress members were denouncing ACORN and voting to defund it. Everyone’s investigating.

ACORN has been tripping over itself with denials and counter-attacks. It denounced “indefensible” actions of its people and fired some. Accused the video makers of distortions and filed a lawsuit. Invoked the respected names of its silk-stocking Advisory Council. Posted its own video. Launched an “investigation” of itself. ACORN has tried all the usual reputation-defense tactics. But the damage is done.

This isn’t a small-time hit. BigGovernment is the brainchild of Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Internet entrepreneur who has worked with Drudge Report, a top right-leaning site, and a similar aggregator, Breitbart.com. The sophisticated distribution and marketing of the “news” is worthy of film propagandist Michael Moore or liberal political activists MoveOn.org. These people play hardball.

Well, enough politics. What does the ACORN story have to do with corporations and IR? Investor relations professionals need to envision, for a moment, the potential for a new media nightmare for their corporate reputations.

Build your own scenario. Imagine a couple of 20-somethings bent on doing damage to your company, products or industry. You can’t predict what store, office or plant they may visit. Starting with sophisticated new media skills, they add well-funded distribution – and show no civility or restraint in their attack.

Will the “gotcha” go viral? How much will it damage the company’s reputation?

The anti-business analogy to ACORN’s current organizational torment argues powerfully that companies need to prepare for potential crises created through interactive media channels. Skirmishes already have taken place – but may intensify.

Companies ought to minimize risk by being sure our people are all trained in ethical conduct. If we consistently do what’s right, it’s much less embarrassing. Culture can prevent problems – or not.

IR and other functions must develop robust social media skills, so we’re prepared before a crisis strikes. And we should invest in early warning systems – assuring timely internal communication, as well as monitoring the social and regular Web.

Our crisis communication plans – including IR components – must be up to the challenges of the 21st Century.

Don’t be ACORNed.

© Copyright 2009 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Social media: Be a leader

September 18, 2009

Thinking a little more about investor relations engagement in social media (or hesitancy to engage), I believe IR people should step forward and offer some leadership in strategy and policies for corporate and employee involvement in the interactive Web. This is not to say take over, which IROs don’t have time to do and other departments would resist. But offer input, show thought leadership.

This issue came up today among IROs in a webinar on social media and IR organized by Bulldog Reporter’s IR Alert. I spoke on the panel but thought I would pull some thoughts – and resources – together to offer readers of IR Cafe.

Two compelling reasons for IR to lead internally and help shape the strategy:

The message. I think of IR as one of the keepers of the corporate brand. Who are we, what’s our story, what do we mean as a company, how do we create value in the world? The CEO, of course, is communicator-in-chief. But the IRO should be nearby, helping to clarify and deliver the message.

Yes, I know – the products are where the money comes from, so brand managers and marketing communications people often drive the agenda for media of all sorts, which now include Facebook, Twitter and the like. Most social media efforts spring from marketing, customers service or PR.But consider the audiences.

But communication strategy has to flow from understanding our audiences. We have customers, who may be learning about our products – or talking about them to friends – on networking platforms. We have employees, who may be talking about work and the company on social media sites. And we have investors – the IR audience – who own the company, after all, and increasingly are using social media to learn about it, in addition to the company website and traditional sources.

Go to search.twitter.com, a small but easy window into social media, and look for your company or big products. When I do this, I find a significant amount of chatter is on financial matters – investors trading links and opinions. We need to be sure the corporate story, the value-creation story, is reaching these audiences.

The risks. One role of IR within a company is to play gatekeeper – to be sure no one blabs the material information before the company properly discloses it to broad audiences. The IRO is, among other things, a Regulation FD gatekeeper.

Do we need to say what the risks are in social media? It’s a wild and woolly space. Consider the confidential information an employee might let slip, unthinking: We’re all excited about this new product that starts shipping November 1 … Everyone’s afraid of losing their job, because sales have just been tanking this summer … My division is being combined with this other one … The CEO had a heart attack.

I’m no lawyer, but what I’ve heard from several attorneys – including Ben Orlanski of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips on the webinar today – is that the same securities laws and SEC rules (reg FD!) apply to social media as everywhere else. So IROs should be involved, both in developing policies and in day-to-day activity, to guard against selective disclosure by the company – in Web 2.0 as well as other forums.

The other social media risk IROs talk about is the crisis. What happens when rogue employees post a YouTube video doing gross things with your pizza? Or angry soccer moms start tweeting and Facebooking about your TV commercial? Social media platforms spread information – true or false – rapidly and uncontrollably. That pizza video reached 1 million-plus viewers in three days, and investors were in the audience – the stock price dropped 13% (it has recovered). Crisis management is a topic unto itself, but the risk is reason to be prepared.

How to lead. As with so many areas of corporate policy and strategy, the influence of an IRO or outside agency is mostly informal – getting up to speed, reaching out internally to build support, be an active participant in a team. In the case of social media, that means working with Legal, Finance, Marketing, PR, Customer Service.

To me, decisions of where and how to engage in social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, there are hundreds of channels and tactics – are questions of strategy that each company must answer for itself. And no two approaches will be identical. But the necessity of thinking through the policy issues applies to every company.

Most public companies have disclosure policies, a giant “business conduct policy” and/or an array of policies covering various areas of employee conduct. Social media are relatively new, but already huge. So companies really need to update their policies to cover involvement of the company and employees in Web 2.0.

I’ve scanned some social media policies of big companies. The ones you can readily find on the Web are from tech companies, who have embraced the culture of sharing their information (even internal policies) online. Take a look at these:

I like Sun’s best among these, because of its plain English and subheads that guide the employee through it. Some business conduct policies are too lawyerly for most employees to get the message (or may even spawn little rebellions).

Charlene Li, co-author of Groundswell, has been preaching the “We need a policy” message for a long time. In a post from way back in 2004, she offers a simple example of a blogging policy, with links to more resources. So if you don’t have a policy that includes up-to-date thinking on social media, you need to catch up.

Communicating with the capital market has always been about using different channels to reach various segments of the investor audience, and IR 2.0 is here.

(Some previous posts and resources on this blog: IR 2.0 – A Menu linking to resources by topic, IR Website Checklist of what should be there, Tiptoeing into 2.0 on trends in corporate engagement, Twitter for IR? thoughts, Social media, reputation & IR, and Social media strategies: Talk, listen … or? Or go to the right side of this page, find “Browse by topic” and click IR 2.0 – Web & social media.)

Please comment with your ideas or links to social media & IR policies or resources.

Good news is, we’re all learning together. Have some fun along the way!

© Copyright 2009 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Social media: Go there

September 17, 2009

Social media guru Brian Solis, principal of Silicon Valley PR firm Future Works, visited the Kansas City chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) tonight – bringing the message that interactive web platforms are transforming the way companies communicate with their publics.

Brian comes at social media from a branding and public relations perspective, and his PR 2.0 blog is well-known. His first engagement in social media was selling digital cameras through the old bulletin boards and forums of the 1990s. And he still approaches the topic looking for measurable impact on sales of products.

As an investor relations practitioner focusing on communicating with financial audiences, I see most companies struggling to come to grips with social media. Web 2.0 is a threat to corporate reputations – and an opportunity. Most companies are still experimenting and trying to clarify their strategies. Some are in full denial.

Several messages that Brian shared stuck with me:

  • We are moving into this uncontrolled, overstimulated world of social media. Like it or not, customers and investors and employees are talking about our companies in blogs, on Twitter and Facebook, with videos on YouTube.
  • Most companies and communicators are struggling to find the best ways to participate in social media to connect with their audiences. “We’re all sort of equal in terms of what we don’t know,” Brian said. This was reassuring to hear from a guy who’s been at it since before Facebook, Twitter, etc. existed.
  • There is great value in personally visiting social media sites, searching for your company and brands, and listening to what people say. We should know who the influential reporters, bloggers and Twitterers are in our industries. By monitoring, we can calculate sentiment, garner feedback and get an early warning on crises, he said. Observation and data come before engagement.
  • Companies need to address the organizational issues of social media. In a couple of years, all areas of our companies will be using networking platforms, one way or another, Brian said. It’s inevitable given the rapidly rising public use of websites for networking, content creation and sharing.

Brian noted that his contacts from companies seeking help come from different departments: Customer Service, Marketing, IT – not just PR (usually not IR, I bet).

As communicators, we should come to grips with policy issues raised by new media and put tools and procedures in place for people across our companies. As IR people, we need to lead in planning for disclosure and capital market impacts.

Update: See also a post on this topic by Dan Schawbel on the PR 2.0 blog, and a neat post by Laurel Papworth, an Australia social media strategist, with lots of examples and links to social media policies (thanks to Dan for the link to her blog).

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.

Social media, reputation & IR

August 17, 2009

There’s a gap in many corporations – and among investor relations people – between recognizing the growing influence of social media (on one hand) and hesitating (on the other) to engage proactively to support company reputations.

In a guest post today on the “Full Disclosure” Big Fat Finance blog, Sharon Allen, Chairman of Deloitte LLP, talks about the firm’s recent “Ethics & Workplace” survey of 500 executives and 2,000 employees. Bosses and workers take different tacks:

  • Although 60% of executives believe companies have a right to know what employees are saying about themselves and their employers, the majority of workers say posts on networking sites are none of management’s business.
  • While most employees recognize that online posts affect their companies’ reputations, a third say they don’t consider bosses or customers’ possible reactions before posting on social networking platforms. 41% of employees say they wouldn’t change their online behavior “even if there were a clear corporate policy about social networking use.”
  • In any case, only 17% of the companies “have programs in place to monitor and mitigate the possible reputational risks related to social network use.”

Allen comments:

As we’ve seen all too often recently, offensive Internet postings and viral videos can race across networks at the speed of light. Left in their wake are damaged brands and shattered reputations …

Establishing policies — or assuring that existing core policies extend to include employee behavior on social networking sites — is crucial to helping everyone understand what constitutes acceptable behavior, especially when our survey results indicate that so few companies have addressed the issue.

Because of the reputational risks, boards of directors should be addressing social media, the Deloitte exec suggests. She says companies should establish policies on use of social networking – and integrate new media into their cultures.

Allen doesn’t address potential risks in investor relations – such as employees leaking financial information on Facebook or tweeting about business trends (whether optimistically or negatively) on Twitter. These risks are good reason for IROs to help management incorporate social media into disclosure policies, implement monitoring of chatter, and develop a strategy for active engagement to support corporate reputation, in addition to individual brand marketing online.

From old media to social media

July 7, 2009

Entrepreneurs trying to raise capital – and get businesses up and running – are turning more and more to social media stars vs. traditional media to get the word out, The New York Times reports in “Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley.”

The hottest PR people in Silicon Valley, says The Times, care less now about reporters at tech pubs or financial magazines than the influential voices online:

This is the new world of promoting start-ups in Silicon Valley, where the lines between journalists and everyone else are blurring and the number of followers a pundit has on Twitter is sometimes viewed as more important than old metrics like the circulation of a newspaper.

Gone are the days when snaring attention for start-ups in the Valley meant mentions in print and on television, or even spotlights on technology Web sites and blogs. Now P.R. gurus court influential voices on the social Web to endorse new companies, Web sites or gadgets — a transformation that analysts and practitioners say is likely to permanently change the role of P.R. in the business world, and particularly in Silicon Valley.

This, of course, is tech PR – the air has always been rarified around Silicon Valley startups, their founders and service providers. But the Times story has much to say about how information spreads in the rapidly changing world of social media.

One thing remains the same. Communicating begins with building relationships, so that when you have something to say, you’re talking to people who know you. I like the quote from Brooke Hammerling, one of those Silicon Valley publicists. Noting that Twitter is today’s fashionable way to get the news out, she says some newer platform may take its place: “It will morph, but it’s still all about relationships.”

(If you’re an investor relations person who doesn’t think IROs should even care about public relations, come back tomorrow for some compelling evidence.)

The website: your front door

June 8, 2009

As investor relations professionals, we need an audience-centered approach to communicating with investors. And the audience, more than ever, is online. So we need to think strategically about our company websites and their IR sections.

Do they deliver what investors need and want? Do they accomplish what we want?

Think of a corporate website as a place that people experience. When an investor comes to your home page, it’s like a prospect stepping onto the front porch of a house you’re trying to sell. The investor looks in the front door, takes it all in, and prepares to go in and walk around. Other sections of the site are the rooms.

An investor has three kinds of experiences when he or she visits your website:

  • Finds information – which, of course, is why he’s there.
  • Forms impressions – your company brand comes across in many ways.
  • Interacts in some way – which may be your one chance to engage.

We should evaluate our websites in terms of these experiences for our audience – what they’re looking for and what drives value in their minds.

Over the years, I’ve worked on corporate websites to benchmark best practices for what IR content should be there, and I’ve done a good deal of writing for the web.

In a panel discussion today at the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) 2009 Annual Conference, I’m sharing some ideas on websites in a workshop called “Trends in Media and Technology.”

The strategic IR focus for a website looks at whether we are delivering the right information for investors in easy-to-find, usable forms, creating the right impressions of a company committed to creating value for shareholders; and inviting investors to interact with the company in convenient and helpful ways.

The IR purposes of the website must integrate with other goals – marketing, recruiting and retention, public affairs – because all of these audiences overlap. A corporate website must integrate with offline sources of information – the print reports, SEC filings, product promotion, media releases and so on that all of these audiences also see.

Tactically, we can do a great deal to maximize the value of our websites to investors. My own “audit” checklist for IR websites has about 40 potential features or content items.

But checking off information items isn’t the main point. The experience of the investor when he or she comes to this place – your front door – is the main point.

Some resources to guide IR people in maximizing our websites:

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.