Who Do You Trust?

You say “po-tae-tow,” I say “po-ta-tow.” You say “tow-mae-tow;” I say “tow-ma-tow.”

An accent is one thing, but how can two respected financial organizations come to such disparate conclusions? A look at the overview comments by each tells a fascinating story:

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morgan Stanley, initiating coverage, says “Buy.” And Zacks, on the same day, with the same stock, says “Sell.”

Zacks:

  • “Disappointing results and rising regulatory concerns”
  • “Company has disappointed its investors in each of the last four quarters”
  • “We would advise investors to stay away from this stock for the time being”
  • “Longer-term recommendation of ‘Underperform'”

Morgan Stanley:

  • “Regulatory concerns are overblown”
  • “Compelling entry point”
  • “Underappreciated growth opportunity”
  • “Valuation does not reflect strong growth potential'”

Without mentioning the stock by name, since it is one of our clients, the recommendations just go to show how widely analysts can differ in their assessments of the same security, and how carefully investors should scrutinize recommendations when making investment decisions.

What happened to the stock on the day these opposing recommendations were issued? It went up.

 

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com 

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Investor Communication Gets Creative

Lotta Value.jpg

Cheers or jeers for Loews?  The holding company that provides business insurance, operates hotels and produces energy, recently stepped outside the box and created a comic strip to connect with investors.  With such a diversified business, it may make sense that Loews is testing new communications methods and aiming to simplify its message.  Or does it?

According to a recent BloombergBusinessweek article, the idea came to CEO, Jim Tisch, during a discussion with Loews’ annual report designer, during which he was considering a more engaging way to present company information versus more typical (and some may say tedious) measures. The Adventures of Lotta Value, Investment Hunter!” is meant to help retail investors decide whether to invest in Loews. The comic takes readers on a journey to find the key to the company’s success, which is “tucked away in vaults at each subsidiary.”

Loews is not the first company to experiment with catchy means to speak to external audiences. In conjunction with its 2012 user conference, dubbed SuiteWorld, NetSuite President and CEO Zach Nelson, and Founder, Chief Technology Officer and Chairman of the Board, Evan Goldberg, utilized a humorous video to discuss the company’s business.

What’s next? “A organ opera reporting on its latest fiscal year, a Facebook poetry slam, an IBM string quartet, or an Herbalife ballet,” pondered Stanford Law School professor and a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Joseph Grundfest, in the BloombergBusinessweek article.

As long as public companies continue to use formal and approved outlets for disclosure of material information, finding an effective way to fight through the clutter and noise, and make investors smile along the way, deserves a big cheer from me.

 

Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Print Media’s Comeback?

President Obama gave kudos to print media this past Saturday evening during his speech at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, singling out the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

 

The president closed his comedic-style remarks on a somber note saying “we have seen humanity shine at its brightest,” referencing how first responders to everyday citizens came together as a country to assist with the recent tragedies in Boston, Texas and the Midwest.

 

“We also saw journalists at their best who took the time to wade up stream through the torrent of digital rumors and chase down facts,” said the president in a packed room at the Washington Hilton Hotel.  “If anyone wonders whether newspapers are a thing of the past, all you needed to do was to pick up or log on to papers like the Boston Globe.  When their communities needed them most, they were there making sense … that’s what great journalism is and that’s what great journalists do.”

 

No doubt the president was playing nice with the media.  It’s also important to keep in mind that Saturday’s event was organized by the White House Correspondents’ Association, an organization of journalists who cover the president.

 

Whether or not the president was continuing his charm offensive remains unclear.  There is truth to his comments, however.  More stringent editorial protocols exist for print outlets than many self-publishing online media even though newspaper staffs have been heavily downsized.

 

In fact, the newspaper industry dropped 30 percent of its newsroom staff since 2000 and hit below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978, according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2013.

 

There is an upside however.  Pew reported that newspaper circulation revenue, both for weekday and Sunday editions, has remained relatively steady over the past two decades.  Moreover, decline in total print ad revenue seems to have leveled off somewhat, although online ad growth has been minimal at best.

 

Several factors have contributed to the small glimmer of good news within the newspaper industry including a surge in pay wall subscriptions, which coincidently the Boston Globe recently halted in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.

 

Newspapers are not out of the woods yet.  These outlets have created strong brand awareness cultivated over decades by providing local news to communities. The trick is leveraging this attribute while reorganizing their business models to successfully compete in today’s online media landscape.

 

Late night TV talk show host Conan O’Brien who headlined the correspondents’ dinner may have said it best, “… many people are saying print media is dying, but I don’t believe it, and neither does my blacksmith.”

 

George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Social Securities

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent decision allowing public companies to announce information via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter is a logical next step for a government agency that has been relatively non-committal about new information channels.

Most public companies think in terms of 10-Ks, 10-Qs, 8-Ks and the like when it comes to disclosure, in addition to issuing news releases on wire services, such as Business Wire, PRNewswire, GlobeNewswire and Marketwire. But times are-a-changin’, indeed. When an executive can speak directly to his or her audience on Facebook or Twitter, it seems superfluous to shell out thousands of dollars a year to issue news releases.

Tweeting a link to financial results is, in many ways, a lot easier (and certainly less expensive) than uploading an eight-page news release to a wire service. So what if tweeting financial results will not reach Yahoo! Finance, Google News and other websites that are fed by wire services. Consider how liberating it might feel to spoon feed your messages directly to audiences who care the most about your news.

Not so fast.

To think that social media are a perfectly benign and convenient way to disclose information is about as naïve as believing that Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un are BFF. Consider the fact that thousands upon thousands of fictitious identities are created on Facebook and Twitter on a weekly, if not daily basis. Now add to the mix that companies are issuing market-moving information on these very same networks, and soon the powder keg doubles, triples and quadruples in size.

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media and believe that a plurality of channels begets a more well-informed public. But the SEC doesn’t (likely) have the bandwidth to police the myriad shenanigans that social media have the ability to perpetuate.

And so my question is this: Is the SEC saying OK to social media to save face(book) on the fact that it did not initiate an enforcement action on Netflix CEO Reed Hastings? Or is it due time for the SEC to embrace social media for what they really are: new information channels that have the potential to breed a hornet’s nest of Reg FD infractions.

 

Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

Lots of Opining as 2013 Proxy Season Heats Up

With this year’s proxy season well underway, bloggers throughout the nation continue to pontificate about the many hot topics facing public companies when it comes to shareholder voting. There’s a lot to learn, but to spare you some time:
 

  • Take a look at last week’s post byThe Metropolitan Corporate Counsel entitled, “This year’s Proxy Season, the Good News and the Bad News,” which sites say on pay and director independence as continuing issues.
     

  • Or you can look at the website,www.law.com, which focuses on environmental issues as dominant themes.
     

  • The Shareholder Rights Project, part of Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, recently announced that proposals it has submitted for 2013 meetings already have had significant impact, with declassifying boards and moving to annual director elections topping its list.
     

  • You also may want to look at www.boardmember.com; www.boardsuitecorp.com; www.proxymonitor.org; and www.corporatesecretary.com.
     

  • Many law firms and proxy solicitation firms are, of course, discussing current issues, as are most of the national law firms.
     

  • Then of course, there’s proxy advisory firm ISS, www.issgovernance.com, stating that political issues have surpassed environmental concerns this year, and that board diversity is elevating on the list of resolutions.
     

  • The other major proxy advisory firm, Glass Lewis, www.glasslewis.com, this year is adamant about board responsiveness to proposals that have received shareholder votes of 25 percent or more against a company’s recommendation.

 
That last one, board responsiveness, is among issues PondelWilkinson takes very seriously, and that ISS and Glass Lewis both continue to address. They will recommend a vote against directors if a board failed to act on a shareholder proposal that received the support of a majority of the shares outstanding the previous year, or if the board failed to act on a shareholder proposal that received a majority of shares cast in the last year and one of the two previous years.
 
My promise to spare you some time with this summary really isn’t sparing you much time at all. While there’s not much that is brand new this year, as always, there’s lots of noise out there, important issues brewing and many opinions of what’s hot. So it’s always a good idea to educate yourself if you are an issuer or a shareholder.

 

rpondel@pondel.com
 
 

Where’s My Latte?


 

A case study in crisis communications.
 
 

Help Speed the Information Flow

A lot has changed in the capital markets since the 1970s, particularly relating to the rapid dissemination of information. However, one key piece of information still reaches companies slower than the 405 Freeway on a Friday afternoon–13F reports showing changes in institutional shareholder ownership.
 
Today, 13F reports, the reporting form filed by institutional investment managers, reaches the public 45 days following the end of each quarter, a glacial pace when considering the advances in electronic communications. Now there is an effort underway to encourage the rapid dissemination of such information, changing that filing period to two days following the quarter.
 
NYSE Euronext, along with the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals and the National Investor Relations Institute recently petitioned the SEC to change the 13F reporting period, stating that the delay “hampers public companies’ ability to identify and engage with their shareholders, including their ability to consult with shareholders regarding “say on pay,” proxy access and other key corporate governance issues.”
 
The petition argues the following points: The length of the current 45-day delay period keeps material information from reaching investors and public companies on a timely basis;The objectives underlying section 13(f) support reducing the delay period; The arguments for maintaining a 45-day delay period are unpersuasive;A substantial reduction in the 45-day delay period would align rule 13(f) with public company governance best practices.
 
We certainly agree that this petition makes sense, especially when you consider the timely disclosure requirements under Regulation FD, filing requirements for 8k’s and Form 4’s, combined with management’s need to understand and know its shareholder base. To send a letter to the SEC in support of the petition, please click here.

 

Matt Sheldon – msheldon@pondel.com

The Downside of Social Media

While social media usage continues to grow here in the U.S. and globally, so do opportunities to reach key audiences on the Web, creating an oversaturation of content, we know all too well.

World Wide Web (Photo Credit: wikipedia.com)

 
Countless efficiency studies have been released on managing content, mirrored by just as many reports on tapping key audiences in a cluttered marketplace.  For instance, standing up in a packed movie theater yelling “Fire!” will certainly grab attention, but it’s probably not the kind of exposure that is sustainable over the long term.
 
Facebook and Google’s ad strategy of creating more personalized content based on user preferences may be the future of marketing.  The fact remains, however, that people turn off when the proverbial information flow goes on overload.
 
Walking a delicate balance is the right strategy.  Consider the following five tips when engaging
online audiences:
 

  1. Whether corporate, investor or marketing-related, make your message relevant. Know your audience’s wants and needs and develop messaging that resonates on a deeper level.  For example, time-strapped CEOs may be more inclined to listen to a vendor that understands the pressures of a “bottom line.”
     

  2. Don’t try to speak to the entire world. While having a video or tweet go viral is rare, most times less is more.  Try having more personalized online conversations and work on building deeper relationships with audiences.
     

  3. Start off slow. Don’t bombard your audiences with too many messages at once. Keep it simple. Start a conversation and then slowly move into other topic areas with time.
     

  4. Add value. Make sure you provide your audience with something they can’t get elsewhere. This is paramount.
     

  5. Try the post office.  May sound corny, but a nice follow up letter using old fashioned snail mail with an actual signed signature goes a long way in today’s fast-paced, digitized world. Think about how many personalized letters you receive these days.
     

  6. And finally, remember the old adage of selling the sizzle, not the steak. Keep in mind that there are millions of conversation threads each day. Why should anyone join yours?

 

George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com
 
 

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

So many forms of corporate communications have been impacted by social media; even the classic letter of resignation has been threatened.

Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer and CEO of Groupon Andrew Mason at a plenary at the E-G8 Forum in Paris.

Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer and CEO of Groupon Andrew Mason at a plenary at the E-G8 Forum in Paris. (Photo Credit: wikipedia.com)

 
Why bother with a bloated and often disingenuous letter, when you can cram your message into 140 words or less? That’s what founder of Groupon Andrew Mason did last week after he was shown the door. In his departure tweet, Mason had the good humor to dust off a standard corporate cliché to set up his punch line:  “After four and a half intense and wonderful years as C.E.O. of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding — I was fired today.”
 
In 2010, Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz got the ball rolling on this trend, tweeting “Today’s my last day at Sun. I’ll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku. Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/C.E.O. no more.”
 
It’s a fascinating twist on messaging when executives – and employees for that matter – are given the boot. How this might become a powder keg was on display in an episode of Netflix’s critically acclaimed original series “House of Cards.” The scene involves editor Tom Hammerschmidt, who, at the behest of his publisher, begrudgingly offers the White House correspondent job to a young, ambitious, rising star reporter named Zoe Barnes. When Barnes turns the job down, he calls her an “ungrateful, self-entitled little (expletive)” and fires her. While the confrontation has Tom steaming, Zoe calmly pulls out her smartphone in front of him and tweets to her legion of followers what he’s said and done. The end result is that Tom is forced to step down and Zoe lands a new job at a political blog.
 
How will this all play out in the future?  For good or bad, it’s possible that more and more corporate
goodbyes will trend toward bluntness and, gulp, honesty.

 

Ron Neal, rneal@pondel.com

Restoring the Faith in Messaging

The announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation just before the start of Lent season comes as a shocking surprise to the world.  Depending on how “resignation” is defined and how the Holy See’s records are interpreted, as few as four and as many as 10 popes have renounced the Papacy.

ALTERNATIVE TEXT

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo Credit: wikipedia.com)

 
The last pope that resigned was Pope Gregory XII in the early 1400s, and like his predecessors, Pope Benedict’s resignation is sprinkled with controversy. So, how does the Vatican respond to such unprecedented news?
 
The Vatican’s semi-official daily newspaper is L’Osservatore Romano, and so far it is gearing its coverage toward restoring readers’ faith in the Church by emphasizing that the Pope’s resignation is conquerable and recoverable.
 
The newspaper’s coverage hammers three central points: the Pope’s resignation is a difficult and regretful decision but made for the greater good; the Pope’s character is that of courage and humility to admit his
inability to stay in his position; and the Church will recover from all of this.
 
Rather than focusing on the fact that the Pope is leaving his position, L’Osservatore Romano draws
attention to the Pope’s character, calling him courageous and humble for being so honest.  And despite the social lashing the Catholic Church has received in the media, the Vatican’s messaging isn’t defensive, but supportive and positive.
 
Consistency is key in the Vatican’s messaging, particularly at a time when a lot of people are looking to the Holy See for a resolution and a way to restore order.  In fact, the messaging has been so consistent and effective that it is positioning the Pope’s resignation as an opportunity for change and a restoration of faith in the Church.
 
The Vatican’s approach serves as a good example that it is not enough to communicate what will be done to fix a situation, but rather it is how a message is communicated that determines whether the message can restore people’s faith.

 

Joanne Sibug, jsibug@pondel.com