Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

IR webpage: connecting with investors

August 22, 2016

Mattel IR webpage

Looking at the IR page on Mattel’s website the other day, I saw something worthy of emulation. Not some fancy technology – the toy maker uses a standard back-end system with an automated feed. No beautiful graphics. Or even terribly unique content – just news releases, SEC filings, slide decks, stock quote … the basics seen on other IR sites.

What struck me was a brief introductory text. A welcome. Here it is:


In addition to making great toys, the Mattel family of companies is proud to uphold our responsibility to investors and media by providing immediate access to the latest Mattel financial information and news. Delve into executive presentations, events, track stock history, and annual reports.

What I like is that this lead-in to the page makes a connection. Most IR webpages skip the pleasantries. Investors, after all, know what company they’re researching, and they can find links or tabs that lead to information they need. “Just the facts, ma’am” is the typical rule.

For me, Mattel’s little intro accomplishes three important things:

  1. Branding – reinforcing the feel-good identity of Mattel
  2. Bonding – expressing a commonality of interest that lets people know “We’re here to serve you”
  3. Calling to action – encouraging investors to use specific tools

At the bottom of Mattel’s IR webpage is the company’s boilerplate – reinforcing who the company is, in factual terms like names of its main toys and in feel-good terms like awards for ethics and corporate citizenship. And the page encourages linking to social media.

If a website is meant to be interactive – and it is – we ought to give more thought to how we connect with people. Maybe even tell them we are providing this information because we think they’re important.

© 2016 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.



Beware of spell check

July 18, 2016

Principle spelling

There is a double warning in an advertisement by Hartford Funds in the July-August 2016 issue of Bloomberg Markets. First, the disclaimer cautions investors that things don’t always work out as hoped.

And then, unintentionally, the ad warns communicators of all kinds – including investor relations – not to place our trust in spell check. (I’m assuming the financial marketers didn’t mean to say their mutual funds could suffer a loss of principle, but rather a loss of principal.)

Proofreading by humans still matters. That’s one of my, er, principles.

© 2016 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

What’s your creation story?

February 11, 2014

As investor relations people, we often hear or talk about stocks that have a great “story” – by which we mean a memorable explanation of how the business generates value. Stockbrokers and the buy side like a good story.

So I was intrigued by “How to Tell Your Company’s Story” in Inc. magazine’s February 2014 issue, which highlights entrepreneurial CEOs and their corporate offpsring. Writer Adam Bluestein says:

Before it has investors, customers, profits, press coverage, or even a perfected product, every startup has at least one valuable asset: its story. So you might want to ask yourself: Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you doing this? … your company’s origin story has more power than you might imagine.

Inc. focuses on the sizzle of young entrepreneurial stories, of course, but the power of how and why your business got started applies to corporate old-timers as well. Even decades into a company’s history – sometimes a century or more – the values, initiative and focus of a founder can influence the culture and brand appeal of a business:

The creation myth is not an asset just for startups. As those businesses grow into established firms and individual founders figure less prominently, the origin story can serve as both a road map and moral compass. Keeping that story alive, keeping it true, and keeping it relevant–these are the challenges more mature businesses must contend with.

What’s the significance for investor relations? Well, investing ultimately is a bet on a company, a group of people trying to accomplish something in the bigger world around us. In IR, we hope to connect with investors whose perspective extends beyond the current quarter.

If we can show that creativity and drive are embedded in a company’s DNA, that business is probably a good bet over the long haul. Think about great companies, and you’ll realize they are also great stocks.

What’s your creation story? Have you researched it, defined the distinguishing characteristics, set out the strategic essentials that fuel your business today and will continue to do so in the future?

© 2014 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Memorable statements

November 16, 2013

Like many who were blessed to work in the robust culture that entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman built in a pharmaceutical company once called Marion Laboratories, I benefited from two core values: First, treat others as you would want to be treated, and, second, share the rewards of performance with those who contribute.

Eighteen years later, these simple rules still roll off my tongue easily. This came to mind recently when talking with a client who recited the mission of one of her former employers, in similar fashion – one, two.

Memorable. Brief. Simple.

These qualities, surely, are what make a great corporate mission, value statement or brand. So ad jingles and rhymes about cereals and sodas echo around in our heads decades later. We remember the guiding principles of our long-past employers. Colors and shapes call to our minds names of companies: Coca-Cola, Dow, BP.

And how about investor relations?

Do we give the market memorable, brief and simple messages?

Or do we describe our companies as a complicated matrix of market segments and product categories? A “portfolio” of services and technologies? A graphic collection of boxes crisscrossed with arrows?

And our business strategies: 18 points? Four categories with multiple strategies for each? Changing formulations quarter by quarter?

We should try to boil our companies down to a corporate brand – a few words that are memorable, brief and simple. A reason to invest. Can we capture the essence in two points, or one? A half-dozen words?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

What’s your theory?

June 7, 2013

THEORYThe classic question “What builds value for a company?” often finds its answer in a strategy. But that’s the wrong answer, Todd Zenger, a professor of business strategy at Washington University, argues in the June 2013 Harvard Business Review. The right answer, he says, is the corporate theory. The distinction matters to IR professionals who influence messaging on shareholder value.

In “What Is the Theory of Your Firm?” Zenger says value does not come from strategy, at least not military-style plans for targeting attractive markets and conquering your rivals (“competitive advantage”):

Unfortunately, investors don’t reward senior managers for simply occupying and defending positions. Equity markets are full of companies with powerful positions and sluggish stock prices.

What Zenger calls the theory of your firm is a view of life that runs deeper than any particular strategy:

Essentially, a leaders’ most vexing strategic challenge is not how to obtain or sustain competitive advantage – which has been the field of strategy’s primary focus – but, rather, how to keep finding new, unexpected ways to create value. [The corporate theory] reveals how a given company can continue to create value. It is more than a strategy, more than a map to a position – it is a guide to the selection of strategies.

Three kinds of “sight” go into a corporate theory, Zenger says:

  • Foresight: beliefs and expectations for the future of an industry or its customers
  • Insight: deep understanding of what is rare, distinctive and value in your company’s assets and activities
  • Cross-sight: ability to spot complementary skills or assets that will fit together to create something new

Apple is one example Zenger cites. With PC makers chasing cheaper, faster and bigger computers that basically were interchangeable, Steve Jobs took a different view of how to create value. It was a theory:

… essentially it held that consumers would pay a premium for ease of use, reliability, and elegance in computing and other digital devices, and that the best means for delivering these was relatively closed systems …

This theory guided Apple into a wide range of markets:

Apple was not the first to design a digital music library, manufacture an MP3 player, or market a smartphone. But it was the first to craft and configure those devices and their user environment with elegant, easy-to-use devices and with tight control of complementary products, infrastructure and market image.

So what’s your firm’s theory? One way to find out is to often ask, Why?

Why this, and not that? Is a particular view of the future driving your CEO’s choice of strategy? Does a unique set of assets or skills energize success, across products or markets? Is a novel perspective leading your company to build or acquire new skills and assets to drive growth?

As Zenger suggests, a good theory not only guides a business; it gives power to the value creation story. And if investors buy your theory – well, they buy. We investor relations people should always seek to better understand – and better explain – how our companies are creating value.

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

One message is better than five

June 8, 2012

Ken Segall, a creative ad man who worked with Steve Jobs through the heyday of building the Apple brand, has an idea worth considering in investor relations:

Minimize your messaging.

Segall came up with the “i” in the iMac brand (which led to iPod, iPhone, iPad …) and worked on memorable campaigns for Apple and other leading companies. Segall’s book Insanely Simple: The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success came out this spring and is a good read for people involved in telling their companies’ story.

“Think minimal” is an idea at the core of Apple’s simplicity, Segall says. For example, Apple offers five choices of computers rather than dozens of variations sold by HP or Dell. Segall spoke Thursday at the Mid-America Corporate Growth Conference hosted by Association for Corporate Growth in Kansas City.

Minimalism works in getting your message across, too, he says. From the book:

Human beings are a funny lot. Give them one idea and they nod their heads. Give them five and they simply scratch their heads. Or even worse, they foreget you mentioned all those ideas in the first place.

Minimizing is the key to making a point stick. … Your point will be more quickly understood, and more easily remembered, if you don’t clutter it up with other points.

When talking to investors, our temptation in IR is to unleash a tsunami of facts. More details in the earnings release, more slides, more bullet points, more pages. We want to overwhelm doubts by flooding people with every piece of information.

Though Segall’s expertise is in marketing consumer goods, he’s right when he urges us “Don’t bury your fact in facts.”

Segall tells a story of discussing an ad with Steve Jobs for an iMac computer. Jobs considered four or five major facts critical to the ad – and thought 30 seconds was plenty of time to make these key points. Segall’s ad-agency boss, Lee Clow, tore off several sheets of paper and wadded them up into little balls.

Taking one ball, Clow said “Here, Steve, catch,” and tossed the ball to the client – who caught it. “That’s a good ad,” Clow said.

“Now catch this,” the ad man said – tossing five balls at once across the table. Jobs couldn’t prevent paper balls from bouncing all over the place – and caught none. “That’s a bad ad,” Clow said. And Jobs was convinced.

So next time we’re working on the quarterly release, or slide deck for the road show, let’s try to remember. As Segall says:

People will always respond better to a single idea expressed clearly. They tune out when Complexity begins to speak instead.

Yeah, yeah, I know. In investor relations, we have a lot of information we must get across to the audience. A lot, even, that we’re required to communicate. But the principle of simplicity holds true. Advice we should heed: Less is more.

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Deadlines in IR – and thoughts on coping

August 3, 2011

Often the investor relations job revolves around corporate news, and sometimes timelines get compressed so we must get it out quickly. This kind of breaking news puts the IR professional on deadline – a short deadline. This morning, for example, a client got in touch just after 7:00 and asked me to write a news release on a transaction – and make it fast so the execs negotiating the deal could show a draft to the other company today.

Mentally this took me back to my time in the daily newspaper business. In the news biz, deadlines must be part of your DNA. Not faraway deadlines like, “We have to do an annual report on 2011 and drop it in the mail by March 23 of next year.”

Real deadlines get your heart beating and adrenaline flowing. These deadlines are measured in minutes rather than days or weeks. The feeling returns:

Something blows up, a plane crashes, the mayor resigns unexpectedly. Suddenly you’re hunkered over a keyboard, the City Editor looking over your shoulder. “Give it to me in takes,” he says. Takes are scraps of two or three paragraphs that an editor can mark up and send to be typeset.

To meet a very short deadline, you have to move copy fast. “We’ll hold the presses for this,” the City Editor’s boss says … a costly move, only for an extraordinary news event. We have to get this into the papers to go on the trucks and be thrown on people’s driveways (or nowadays, we rush to beat the competition in posting the story to the Web).

So you think fast and write fast. Tick, tick, tick. You must get that news out, but of course even more importantly you must get it right.

Since I’ve calmed down now from my morning deadline, I’ll share a few thoughts about deadlines and how we as IR professionals can cope with them:

  • Plan your approach. When you get a short-notice assignment, spend the first few moments jotting an outline of key messages, a short list of resources you need, a rough work plan to guide your use of time.
  • Clear your mind. Take a few breaths or get a cup of coffee before diving in.
  • Assess your progress. Once you’ve made some headway, make a printout and read it over to see what works – and what’s still missing.
  • When it’s done, check it. If you’re working fast, the need is greater than ever to proofread what you write – better yet, get a reality check from colleagues.
  • Practice stress management. Really, this is about lifestyle. Many IR people would benefit from taking time off, staying in better shape, eating better – all of those healthy tips that can best be implemented when you’re not on deadline.

What do you think? Any secrets or tips for coping with deadline pressures in IR?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Beware the perfect storm

December 10, 2008

perfect-stormIn any time of disruptive change, some CEOs and politicians latch onto a metaphor to try to communicate what’s going on – or an oversimplified version of it – to us common folk. Trouble is, this often doesn’t work. And coining a cliche (speechwriters beware) can make the speaker look like a follower, rather than a leader.

So we come to the perfect storm. Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein skewers that literary (or movie) allusion in his column today:

A bit of unsolicited advice to business executives trying to explain why their company or their industry is suddenly in the soup:

Please spare us the “perfect storm” metaphor.

It’s hackneyed, for starters. It doesn’t square with the facts. And for people who fancy themselves leaders, it’s downright unbecoming.

Newspaper and real estate magnate Sam Zell and Wall Street presence Robert Rubin have laid claim to the perfect storm metaphor recently, Pearlstein notes.

The worst aspect of this turn of phrase is that, far from letting executives off the hook, “perfect storm” refers to a dangerous weather pattern for which ship captains like the one in the movie (if you missed it, see trailer here) are likely to receive more than ample warnings.

The captains of industry and Wall Street heard dire warnings before 2008, Pearlstein contends, so this storm exonerates no one.

In crafting investor relations messages, we usually do better with straight language than metaphor. Results generally speak louder than words, and the goal of a company’s explanation ought to be clarity – rather than spin.

We buried the news, I’m afraid

December 9, 2008

A client issued a news release recently. Without going into detail, let’s just say it was the work of a loose-knit committee with more finance experts and lawyers than communications folks (me). That’s the way with all financial announcements.

The release was dense with technical matters only an expert could understand. Then again, those experts were our target audience.

What brought me up short was one bit of press coverage. The day of the release, a wire service published a well-reported story, putting the news into perspective, citing actions by others in the industry, and so on. The next day, the wire service wrote a second story. This one focused almost entirely on a scrap of information that also was in the release: the client’s plans to launch its major product by year end.

The second story made me realize: We buried the news – the launch date was down in the eighth paragraph of the release. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 … 8!

If you say anything in the eighth paragraph, most people get the unspoken message that this is not the most important part. In this case the first reporter mentioned the launch plan – in the 15th paragraph. Only a committed reader gets that far into a story. The second-day story came along and highlighted the launch – I was glad it did.

Some companies want to bury the news, of course. This is the not-so-honest technique of putting a fact to which shareholders should pay the most attention down on the second or third page of the release, rather than in the first or second paragraph. If a reporter catches you burying the news, you may catch grief in the story – not to mention the reactions of investors, who may never come calling again.

In this situation, we didn’t intend to disguise anything – it was simply not the main event the company set out to announce. Given another chance, I’d probably say let’s do two releases, focus each more narrowly and make each piece of news clear. A lesson learned.

Haiku & the art of a key message

November 13, 2008

japanese-writingOccasionally clients have asked me to write copy for banner ads. Banners are the little boxes that appear when your browser arrives on a Web page, or you enter certain terms in a search engine, marking you as someone’s target audience. From a writer’s standpoint, the challenge of a banner ad is that space is rigidly constrained – “one line, no more than 35 characters (spaces included)” or something of that sort. Make your point, and get out.

The process reminds me of haiku, a Japanese form of poetry that most of us probably tried to avoid in school. English teachers use haiku as an exercise – the writer must compose three lines totaling 17 syllables, no more and no less. It’s a way of forcing students to squeeze an idea or feeling into a tightly defined template. The challenge is, how richly can you communicate in 17 syllables?

My point here is neither haiku nor banner ads. Rather, it is the art of writing a key message for investors. Some ideas:

  • Keep it short. In one sentence, where’s the value in your company?
  • Identify “magic phrases” – the essence that distinguishes your firm.
  • Use down-to-earth words. “Growing sales” not “revenue enhancement.”
  • Speak in active voice. “We took action” not “Steps were implemented.”
  • Begin and end on strong words, not “based on current assumptions.”
  • Practice. For every communication, start by writing a key message.
  • Then do what the great novelists and professional writers always do: Polish, polish, polish – until your message is practically haiku.