Archive for the ‘Media & public relations’ Category

Crisis rules

July 16, 2013

When a company gets into a crisis – a real crisis with the mob at the gates wanting to tear the place down – management can call a lawyer. Or a politician. Or a PR person. Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer who served in Bill Clinton’s White House when the Prez got caught with his pants down, is a player in all three realms. He’s a guy people call when it all hits the fan.

Now Davis has a book, Crisis Tales (Threshold Editions, 2013), laying out five rules for how to survive a crisis. War stories from many crises in business and government illustrate these rules. Says Davis:

My work in crisis management has taught me a series of rules and one overall guiding principle. The guiding principle: Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.

The core idea of the book is to take control of a story – a narrative, as the pundits say – by becoming the person who tells the story. This is a valuable lesson for companies and CEOs whose business blows up, literally or figuratively, in the harsh light of media or public attention. And it’s a good guideline for us as investor relations professionals.

A top-line look at Davis’ five rules of crisis management:

  1. Get all the facts out.
  2. Put the facts into simple messages.
  3. Get ahead of the story.
  4. Fight for the truth using law, media and politics.
  5. Never represent yourself in a crisis.

This is a crisis communications guide worth perusing. I’m uncomfortable in the swampland we call politics, even cynical about anyone whose address ends in “DC.” But Davis’ examples of damaged reputations – and the process of damage control – are instructive.

In a public company, it’s well worth considering the strategy for handling a crisis before something blows up. What’s your crisis plan?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

New IR tactic? Michelle Obama …

October 22, 2010

Well, there it is, in the pages of the Harvard Business Review for November 2010: Finance prof David Yermack of NYU reports in “Vision Statement: How This First Lady Moves Markets” that Michelle Obama’s choice of outfits generates “abnormal returns” for stocks of publicly traded companies behind the fashion brands.

Who’d have thought the First Lady might become a tool for investor relations?

Yermack reports on 189 public appearances by Obama – FLOTUS, not POTUS – in which she wore 245 items of apparel with recognizable brands of 29 public companies. For those 29 companies, her wardrobe choices generated a total value of $2.7 billion, Yermack says. You read it right: $2.7 billion, with a B.

When the First Lady jetted off on a one-week tour of Europe in March-April 2009, for example, her fashion choices were much in the media – and Yermack calculates the stocks of fashion and retail companies whose clothes she wore rose an average of 16.3%, beating the S&P 500 gain of 6.1%. For 18 major appearances, the cumulative abnormal return averaged 2.3%, he says.

A hedge fund could build a trading strategy on this First Lady Fashion Anomaly. The NYU Finance prof observes:

The stock price gains persist days after the outfit is worn and in some cases even trend slightly higher three weeks later. Some companies that sell clothes that Obama frequently wears, such as Saks, have realized long-term gains. Her husband’s approval rating appears to have no effect on the returns.

This is about impact on revenue (and perhaps investors’ perceptions), not some kind of fashion voodoo like the stock market hemline indicator. And her impact exceeds that of other celebrities or models, Yermack says. He explains it this way:

The unparalleled robustness of the Michelle Obama effect results from the confluence of three factors: her personal interest in fashion, recognized by consumers as authentic; her position as First Lady and the intangible value it confers; and the power of the social internet and e-commerce. Descriptions and images of what she’s wearing spread across the social internet in near-real time, and consumers can buy these fashions almost instantly online.

So figure out how to get your product on the First Lady, preferably for a high-profile event like a state dinner or tour of world capitals. IR needs to be creative!

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

PR does matter

July 8, 2009

Media-and-manI know, I know. “It’s all about the numbers.” Investor relations people (and some CEOs and CFOs), steeped in accounting fundamentals and valuation formulas, are skeptical of public relations. We scoff at press interviews, photo ops … the “spin” stuff PR people do. Of course, no respectable fund manager or analyst would admit to being swayed by a press release, or getting an idea from a newspaper. “It’s all about the numbers,” they say.

Trouble is, influencing the market is not all about the numbers. It’s all about the numbers – plus getting the right people to pay attention.

Two recent studies from respected business schools analyze extensive data on the relationship between press coverage and the market for individual stocks – and conclude that broader dissemination of news has benefits in the capital markets.

The more comprehensive study, a doctoral paper by Eugene Soltes at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, looks at all US nonfinancial companies traded on NYSE, NASDAQ or AMEX, excluding the 100 largest by market cap. Soltes and his computer programs count and analyze all articles on these firms, 9.3 million bits of news in total, from the Factiva database for 2001 through January 2007. Then he crosses that information with annual trading data on the stocks, looking for long-term effects rather than a daily “pop” in market activity. Soltes concludes:

The press provides an important and highly visible system of communication between firms and investors. … Specifically, greater dissemination of firm news is found to lower bid-ask spreads, increase trading volume, and lower idiosyncratic volatility. …

By increasing the visibility of firms, greater dissemination may also reduce a firm’s cost of capital.

In this paper, “dissemination” has to do with putting news out and getting it covered in the business press. Soltes says the average firm sent out 21 press releases a year, one every 12 trading days, covering deals, earnings and other news. (His tables give a median of 14 releases a year, just over one a month, a figure I like better as the midpoint in a range of small to large companies). For each release, business publications wrote an average of 1.5 articles – obviously, many releases get no coverage, while some get a lot. Soltes did not investigate why some releases get more coverage – being newsworthy probably is the key, although making connections with reporters also helps.

Soltes’ point is that more is better – more frequent issuance of news and broader coverage of it. Consider the impact of news dissemination on bid-ask spreads:

Based on an average sized trade, a 20% increase in press coverage reduces the average cost of a trade by $1.07. With the average firm having nearly 25,000 trades a month, this translates into a significant reduction in trading costs.

Soltes also finds more dissemination of news increases monthly trading volumes and decreases the volatility of individual stocks. Most companies – and institutional investors – value reduced trading costs, increased liquidity and lower volatility.

The other recent study, by Brian Bushee and three accounting colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, focuses on quarterly earnings news. This one looks at the three-day window around earnings (earnings release date, plus or minus one trading day) and yields more detail on immediate trading effects.

The Wharton study looks at quarterly announcements by 1,182 medium-sized NASDAQ firms from 1993 to 2004, excluding large cap companies based on an assumption that differences in coverage are more marked among lesser-known names. The authors analyze 608,296 articles on those quarterly results:

Our results indicate that, ceteris paribus, press coverage has a significant effect on firms’ information environments around earnings announcements. We find that greater press coverage during the earnings announcement window is associated with reductions in bid-ask spreads and improvements in depth.

The impact of media attention extends to retail and institutional investors:

We find that greater press coverage is associated with a larger increase in the number of both small and large trades. … For small trades, these results are consistent with the press providing information to a broader set of investors and triggering more trades. For large trades, these results are consistent with press coverage reducing spreads and increasing depth enough to reduce adverse selection costs and encourage more block traders to execute trades.

Both papers take a mechanistic view of corporate processes for disseminating news and how the media respond. These are data mining studies by accounting scholars – focusing on numbers of releases and press stories, word counts and similar measures of dissemination.

No attention is given to the qualitative nature of the news – positive, negative or nuanced. The authors also do not explore why reporters decide to write more, less or not at all. (The Soltes study does analyze “busy news days,” when a flood of business or nonbusiness news overwhelms XYX Company’s little press release, and confirms that issuing news on busy days has little benefit – although companies obviously can’t control when Michael Jackson dies or GM goes bankrupt.)

Neither of these studies venture outside of traditional “news” databases to analyze the impact of using social media, blogs and so on, to disseminate news. My guess is future studies will prove that the impact on markets comes from getting the word out, by any means, as long as you are reaching the investing audience.

Bottom line: Issuing news has a measurable benefit for public companies in the capital markets – increasing volume, reducing trading costs and reducing volatility. More frequent news is better. Getting more reporters or news outlets to write about the company amplifies the benefit. That’s what the quantitative evidence says.

So when PR people speak of “creating visibility,” it does matter in the market.

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.

Mad Money = sad money, Barron’s says

February 9, 2009

james_cramer_2

Enjoy the manic entertainment experience of CNBC’s Mad Money – but don’t count on getting rich based on host Jim Cramer’s advice – Barron’s recommends in this weekend’s edition. In “Cramer’s Star Outshines His Stock Picks,” the weekly says the TV stock jock’s Buy/Sell calls are “wildly inconsistent” but, overall, perform substantially worse than a passive investment in the market.

Cramer would no doubt disagree, but Barron’s at least bases its conclusion on some serious number-crunching of his stock picks:

Cramer’s recommendations underperform the market by most measures. From May to December of last year, for example, the market lost about 30%. Heeding Cramer’s Buys and Sells would have added another five percentage points to that loss, according to our latest tally.

To his credit, Cramer’s Sells “made money” by outperforming the market on the downside by as much as five percentage points (depending on the holding period and benchmark). His Buys, however, lost up to 10 percentage points more than the market.

Barron’s also says stocks Cramer highlights as Buys tend to have gone up in the days before the call, and the reverse with Sells. The paper speculates on whether that points to advance leaks of broadcast plans – a serious allegation – or merely Cramer’s preference for calling stock moves based on the momentum of “what is working.”

Investor relations folks seem to regard Cramer as comedy, or aggravation, or both – but not a serious source of investment advice. If Cramer was serious, he wouldn’t yell so much or use funny sound effects. Even mentions on his show are a short-term event. But the Barron’s piece offers a more reasoned analysis of Mad Money and its picks than I’ve seen so far.

The media – your summer thriller?

August 5, 2008

Here’s a summer reading idea, since we have a few weeks left, maybe with some pool or beach time: Manage the Media (Don’t Let the Media Manage You) by journalist William Holstein. It’s a quick, easy read in the Harvard Business School Press “Memo to the CEO” series: 100 pages, with many anecdotes and a real-life point of view.

Even if your job in investor relations excludes dealing with the media, this little tome offers valuable insights, so think outside the silo. Sooner or later today’s headlines on executive pay, shareholder activism, CEO missteps and other topics may come home to roost – and as an IRO you will have input into how your company communicates in a crisis. A little forethought now may help avert a nightmare later.

Attacks on corporate reputation pose some of the worst risks to shareholder value, and the author notes that CEOs and boards are starting to realize the need to manage those risks:

In response to the rapid emergence of coalitions of critics, shareholders and investors, and in recognition of the increasing prevalence of Internet-based communications, there appears to be growing consensus … that the broad role of communications must be more deeply integrated into how CEOs chart their business strategy. Communications can no longer be a sideshow.

Media relations also caught the attention of NIRI in the July issue of Investor Relations Update – worth a peak if you haven’t read the article.

Not that a CEO, VP of public relations or IRO can really “manage” the media. Giving up that illusion is the first step toward successfully working with the media. What Holstein presents is a practical set of suggestions for how companies can manage themselves to communicate more effectively.

IR & PR – can we talk?

June 20, 2008

“Managers in public companies frequently underestimate – at their peril – the function of the press in their financial communications. … Cultivating these fundamental relations with the press is often the first step in creating understanding and visibility among investors and analysts.”

Gregory S. Miller
“How to Talk to Investors – Through the Press”
Harvard Business Review, January 2008