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Resuming the Blog with a Report on a Useful Panel

Crisis Communications in the Age of Social Media is the title of a panel that NASDAQ OMX presented yesterday in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I want to thank the NASDAQ team for the invitation to attend. If they offer this panel in your area, it’s worth attending.

There were a couple of key “take-aways” for me. One related to crisis communications and the other to IR.

On the crisis topic, there wasn’t a lot that was new. All of the panelists agreed that it’s no longer enough to write a crisis plan and then put it away in that proverbial drawer. Crisis planning needs to be an on-going, iterative process involving more than just the corporate communications staff.

The best insight, I thought, came from panelist Larry Kramer, of the Kramer Consulting Group, LLC. His firm specializes in risk, controversy, and crisis communications. He said that while there are certainly different levels or types of crisis, they fit into what he termed a “moment of peril.” He said that while growth and use of social media have changed many things, there are some aspects of crisis communications that are timeless. What has really changed is the speed at which knowledge or perception of a crisis can spread. That has led to the growth in importance of having not only a multi-platform response but also having someone always available to respond.

What I found most applicable to IR came from Richard Brewer-Hay, who is the chief blogger at eBay. He provided insight on how he uses Twitter as an both an IR and a constituent communication tool. While eBay sellers may or may not be shareholders, they are interested in the company’s earnings announcements. However, they may be too busy running their businesses to listen to a quarterly earnings call. So he Tweets key points from the call.

What is key, to me, is how that’s handled to stay on the safe side of the disclosure rules.  He said that he gets an advance copy of the earnings call script and creates, in advance, a series of Tweets with language taken directly from the script. Those draft Tweets go through a review and approval process prior to the call. Then, during the call, as those words are said, the respective Tweets go out. Once the call goes to the Q&A, the Tweeting ceases.

I like that approach. Of course, he’s part of a large company and since he’s not in the IR department, he can concentrate on the Tweets because he’s not having to cover last minute details associated with an earnings call. But smaller companies can do it too with some advance planning.

One more thing. You may have noticed that there’s a large time gap between the prior posts and this one. That’s because I accepted an offer to join a company as their in-house head of IR. While working there, I stopped Tweeting and blogging in order to eliminate any risk that readers might confuse my personal views with those of the company.

My involvement with that company has now ended and I have resumed my IR and PR consulting.  So I plan to resume posting and Tweeting what I hope are helpful thoughts on IR and PR topics.

And — shameless plug coming — I’m again open to project and contract work helping organizations improve their IR and corporate communications. Referrals are always appreciated.

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Activist Shareholders and Social Media

I’ve said for some time – most recently in my blog post of Feb. 3 – that IROs and management should expect social media to become part of the activist toolkit. Today I read a blog article which takes that idea and underscores it with specific examples.

To get a sense of  how social media have the potential to impact your investor relations, especially your dealings with activist investors, you should read the article, “The Floodgates Are Open: Shareholder Activists Intensify Social Media Utilization” by Richard Levick in a Forbes blog posted last week.
Here’s a link:  http://onforb.es/gkXHnt

Read the examples and imagine your company being on the receiving end.

Levick says at the end of his post, “… as the activist investors become more organized, focused, and aggressive – and as investors of all types now engage more directly with corporate websites, bypassing PR wire channels – silence is the really perilous choice.”

Some companies with really proactive IROs supported by savvy management and financial resources are already showing what can be done. (See my post below about Dell.)

But what if you don’t have resources at that level? There are still aspects of social media you can use to start engaging your shareholders that don’t cost a lot of money or manpower:

  • Use your website to give investors a venue to post questions to management. It’s an easy first step. You can use it to solicit their questions in advance of an earnings call or an annual meeting.
  • Or get more open and provide an e-forum where they can not only ask questions but also post comments and even criticism.
  • Establish a monitoring system that you can use as a form of early warning about sentiment toward your company.

Those are three easy first steps you can take. Call me if you’d like other ideas and suggestions for how to implement them.

How to Start Using Social Media for Investor Relations — A Short Presentation

I’ve created a brief “Slidecast” presentation on some easy first steps a company can take to begin applying social media tools to enhance their engagement with current and prospective investors.

Many IROs feel they are too busy to use social media or may be intimidated by the perceived technical and regulatory issues. However, I know from personal experience that the steps I’m suggesting don’t require lots of time, money or legal angst to implement. And the potential payback in terms of improved shareholder communication is well worth it.

Take a look at the presentation. It runs about five minutes.  You can watch it on the SlideShare website:
http://www.slideshare.net/AbeWischnia/slidecast-on-sm-ir

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

A New Follower and What That Means

I gained a new follower on Twitter today. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. What makes this worth noting is where that new follower  is from.  — Dell, Inc.

Last week I both blogged and Tweeted about Dell. In those postings, I mentioned how Dell managed within a few days time to not only do something really praiseworthy from an Investor Relations standpoint but also to do something really dumb from a PR standpoint. (See my earlier blog here: https://ir4today.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/dell-inc-%e2%80%93-a-great-move-and-a-dumb-move/)

The fact that they’ve started following me on Twitter shows how smart they are. Not because I’m that special, but because it shows me that their social media monitoring system is alive and working. They very quickly picked up my Tweet and blog referencing Dell. That shows they are working to know what is being said about them and who is saying it.

If you’re not doing similar monitoring about your company, you should be.

Management expects their communications professionals to take the perspective from “inside” and push it out. Too often, that’s all they do. However, top PR and IR pros realize that it’s just as important – and sometimes more so – to see the company from the “outside” perspective , to take the “outside” and bring it in, and use that to help management have a better understanding of their constituencies.

Whether you’re dealing with the investment community or a public policy issue, you need to have a solid understanding of what your target audiences are thinking and concerned about in order to be effective in your communication efforts.

As Stephen Covey says in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”  An active program to monitor what’s being said about your company is an example of that Covey “habit.” Or, to paraphrase Covey, one of the seven habits of highly effective IR. As I said in the earlier blog, the Dell IR team gets it.

You don’t have to be Dell or anywhere near their size to do that kind of monitoring. If you’re pressed for time, there are lots of IR/PR firms (mine included) that can set it up and manage it for you. Feel free to contact me (Abe@Better-IR.com) if you want to explore how to do this.

Dell, Inc. – A Great move and a Dumb move

What would you give for a ten-fold increase in the number of people you could reach with your earnings announcement?

I’m not talking about the many (and often questionable) stock promotion outfits that promise to promote your release all over their websites and email it to their subscribers.

I’m talking about reaching more investors by engaging them via the technology tools you have available right now. I’m talking about the outstanding example set by Dell this week in the way they used social media to distribute their earnings report and messages.

For a good write-up that explains what they did, read the excellent blog by Dominic Jones:   http://irwebreport.com/20110216/dell-inc-breaks-new-ground-for-social-media-in-investor-relations/

Quoting from Jones:

“According to Dell’s own internal statistics, yesterday’s campaign generated 1,169 posts mentioning the company’s financial results compared to 111 posts in the prior quarter. The potential audience for those posts was 3,458,658 people versus 243,590 in the last quarter.”

As Jones points out, the potential audience number does not include those on financial websites such as Yahoo, etc.

But numbers by themselves are not the point. What is key here is that those people who were posting were doing so because they were engaged with the company and with the messages Dell was hoping to convey.

Most of the time, companies push out the press release, hold the earnings call, and hope investors “get it.” But it’s no longer good enough to just keep putting out press releases and hoping for pick-up.

A growing percentage of your investors are already using social media in their daily lives. They’re coming to expect interactive communications and engagement from the companies they do business with and that expectation will increasingly apply to companies they invest in. This is changing the way effective IR is practiced.

The ones who really get it are the IR team at Dell.

On the other hand, also from Dell, something that will rank among the Dumb PR Moves of the year. A badly thought out PR stunt resulted in Austin police arresting a Dell employee. Read about it here: http://tinyurl.com/4o73lk9

What IR Can Learn from the Crisis in Egypt

Watching the dramatic events unfold in Egypt, a recurring element in the news coverage has been the role that various forms of social media have played in facilitating the organization of the demonstrations.

Social media have become accelerants of social change. And if social media can be used so successfully by a determined core of activists to bring down a government, the implications for other institutions, such as publicly-traded companies, have to be considered.

I believe angry or dissident shareholders will see Egypt as an example of what they might accomplish if they’re unhappy with management.

For example, they will realize that social media give them the power to create a community to act on matters up for vote in the proxy. Historically, those who wanted to urge shareholders to vote against management had to have deep pockets for the costs of lawyers, access to the shareholder lists, mailings and display ads in major newspapers.

In the future, it won’t be difficult or expensive to organize shareholders and advocate positions via blogs, Facebook, Tweetups, Meetups, and other social media platforms. Once the community has been formed, it’s easy to Tweet “Vote against the CEO” or “Vote against the reverse split” and provide a link to more information – and do so in fewer than 140 characters.

In the future? That future is here.

For a while now, I’ve been an advocate of interactive shareholder forums that are part of a company’s IR website. In the current context, I believe such a forum can help management grow with this new reality. By creating an online community where shareholders can ask questions, voice opinions and criticism, and offer suggestions in a context of management participation, companies can engage with their investors and be part of the conversation instead of just the target.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of phone calls from frustrated or angry shareholders (and as one who was in-house head of IR at three companies, I’ve been there), you know that often shareholders just want to be heard. By participating in the conversation, engaging, and being part of the community, management can really track investor concerns and use that to help build shareholder support.

That’s something Mubarak didn’t understand.

The Wrong Way to Use a Website

I need to have gutters installed on a rental house in another state. Two roofers who were recommended to me to do some roof repairs also gave me bids on the gutter work. But I wanted to compare that with a bid from a company specializing in gutters.

I went to the website of a gutter contractor. Their “ask for a bid” link led to a form page that I dutifully filled in and submitted. But I never heard back. When I called several days later, all I could reach was a voice mail box. I left a detailed message and also asked if I should wait for a quote from them. Still haven’t heard back. If they call, do you really think I’m likely to want to do business with them?

So how does this relate to IR and PR?

I did a random check of the IR websites of a number of companies. I was surprised and disappointed at the percentage that did not show the name and phone number of the investor relations contact. At one company, in addition to not giving the name or phone number, the “contact investor relations” link led to a form to fill in as the only way to ask a question. And they make you also submit the “captcha” code graphic.

I don’t understand why companies do this. When I was an in-house IRO, I made sure my name and direct line phone number appeared on the website. I wanted investors to know my name and phone number. I wanted them to feel I was accessible and available. I wanted them to contact me to learn about the company.

If you want to be better understood by the market, why make it hard for people go get information? A determined investor will be able to sleuth the name and contact info. But why make them go through the effort? All it does is discourage some and annoy others. Discouraging and annoying current and potential investors is contrary to the practice of better investor relations.

For some thoughts on a better way to use your IR website, read this article published earlier this week in the San Diego Union Tribune business section. The link is to the online version: http://tinyurl.com/46fq8sp