Best and Worst

Some CEOs are great and offer stellar business advice. Some CEOs are not so great and fall victim to errors of judgment.  Today’s blog looks at some of the best and worst (of 2016), courtesy of Forbes (via MSN) and Business Insider.

Best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” – Warren Buffett

Worst: While defending a significant price increase for an important medication, a healthcare company’s CEO claimed that the product was fairly priced and blamed high-deductible health plans for the increase. In October 2016, the company “agreed to pay a fine of $465 million to settle accusations that it overcharged the government” for its products.

Best: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk…In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” – Mark Zuckerberg

Worst: After last year’s presidential election, the CEO of a cybersecurity startup threatened on Facebook to kill the president-elect. He resigned from the company in November 2016, and later admitted that what he said “was incredibly dumb, perhaps the dumbest thing I have ever said.  I really only have myself to blame for this.”

Best: “My mother always taught me to never look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. The amount of time people waste dwelling on failures rather than putting the energy into another project always amazes me.” – Richard Branson

Worst: When the CEO of a large U.S. bank only shouldered some of the blame for opening new customer accounts without permission in order to meet quotas, and put much of the blame on “the 5,300 low-level employees who had already been fired,” Senator Warren accused him of “gutless leadership.” Later he admitted full responsibility and stepped down from his position.

Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Watch What You Read

Photo credit: Getty

Shopper with Lord & Taylor bag. Photo credit: Getty

Perhaps it was trumped (pun intended) by bigger news, but the Federal Trade Commission recently announced its first-ever enforcement action involving a subject near and dear to the hearts of professionals in the investor and public relations business—the unfortunate, increasingly blurred lines between real and paid-for news.

The FTC action received almost no media coverage, which was too bad. The case involved retailer Lord & Taylor, which ultimately settled, over what appeared to be a legit story about the company’s clothes, published on the fashion website Nylon. But it was really an ad.

With print publications, such trickery is rarely an issue. We all have seen that smallish line saying, “Paid Advertisement.”  Online, however, that’s not often the case.

While there is nothing wrong with online advertising, readers should be made aware that the content is sponsored.

In a press release, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, “Lord & Taylor needs to be straight with consumers in its online marketing campaigns. Consumers have the right to know when they’re looking at paid advertising.”

So shame on Lord & Taylor, and perhaps even a bigger shame on Nylon. The real message resulting from the enforcement action is: Readers, watch what you read these days, particularly online, because it is becoming more difficult to tell the difference between ads and articles.

– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

 

The Public Relations of Lobbying

Influence is the common denominator between public relations and lobbying. One influences opinion, and the other, government.

While these disciplines sometimes work in tandem, they are separate and distinct. In New York, however, that may not be the case. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) earlier this year issued an advisory opinion that expands the definition of lobbying to include aspects of public relations.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

Whoa nelly, says the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s largest and foremost membership organization for public relations and communication professionals, which blasted JCOPE in a statement, saying the opinion “will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government.”

While the current advisory opinion is being challenged in court, JCOPE’s new interpretation of the New York State Lobbying Act, ambiguous as it may be, says consultants engaged in “direct” or “grass roots” lobbying on behalf of a client must comply. Believe it or not, this includes traditional PR tactics, such as message development, drafting press releases and contacting media.

The definition of a lobbyist usually revolves around compensation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are more than 50 versions of lobbying laws in states and territories,  ranging from definitions of lobbyists to payment thresholds for compensation or reimbursements.  New York’s current threshold is $5K annually.

Excluding media was probably a good “PR play” by JCOPE, no pun intended. Just think of how top-tier outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and hundreds of others would react if they had to register as “lobbyists?” It also would be interesting to learn how a reporter would feel if he or she was included in a PR firm’s “disclosure” for its “lobbying” activities.

The reality is media outlets frequently meet with public officials. But should a person who simply set up a meeting between a client and an editorial board qualify as a lobbyist? Common sense says no. The difference is that editorial boards have their own guidelines and choose what they cover or report on. Lobbyists, on the other hand, go directly to the source to sway opinion.

PR practitioners basically are connecting the dots, middlemen so to speak. Aside from helping point stakeholders to pertinent information, or connecting people with similar or disparate points of view, we help clients define messages and better articulate their narratives. But it’s always the client’s message, never that of a PR firm.

– George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Is Being Too Polished a Public Speaker Bad?

Borowitz-Fact-checking-Reveals-GOP-Debate-Was-Four-Percent-Fact-1200

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (3rd from left) during a GOP debate last year. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty published in The New Yorker.

Some are born with it. Others practice a lot. Establishing a visceral connection with an intended audience is paramount to the success of any public speaker.

Watching the 2016 presidential debates can be good lessons learned when it comes to public speaking in corporate life. A schmorgesborg of styles are hitting the TV airwaves among the candidates of both parties. Some are slow talkers, others quick, and some are just loud.

So what about being too polished? Could that be a bad thing? We train corporate spokespeople to take command of the issues and the stage. In other words, teach them to come across poised, and yes, polished too. Apparently that is a bad thing, at least when it comes to politics.

It was a surprise to many PR folks that GOP candidate Sen. Marco Rubio was criticized for being too eloquent of a speaker. Some likely voters used the word “robotic” to describe the Florida junior senator. Even the New York Times acknowledged this trait in a recent op-ed titled, “Marco Rubio Is Robotic, but Not Out of It.” Many other media outlets reported on Rubio’s mechanical demeanor as well.

It’s easy to understand that not having a “connection” with an audience can be detrimental. One example of a flawless presenter is Joel Osteen. Watching the pastor deliver a sermon to the thousands in attendance of his Texas-based Lakewood Church is quite amazing.

It really boils down to authenticity, or in other words, being real. Mostly all communications, especially via social media and video, is about delivering a message that directly speaks to is intended audience. That’s the key to success for so many viral videos and posts.

Effective public speaking—to customers, investors and other corporate audiences—certainly can help business careers. A Harris survey on behalf of cloud-based presentation platform company Prezi reported that 70 percent of employed Americans who give presentations agree that presentation skills are critical to their success at work. Coincidentally, 75% of the presenters surveyed indicated that they would like to improve their presentation skills.

The work never ends, and we all agree that practice makes perfect. For Marco Rubio, he has acknowledged his machinelike nature and plans on being more “real” among likely voters. Ironically, this level of skill may require less rehearsing and more speaking “off the cuff,” which may present its own set of problems.

– George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

 

 

Hello 2016

We’re excited to usher in 2016 and looking forward to keeping you informed on this blog about all things relevant to investor relations, strategic public relations and Julia Child’s secret recipes.  Now that your ears are perked, following are a couple of interesting tidbits from PondelWilkinson.

  • Evan Pondel recently wrote the cover story for IRupdate magazine on how to think like an activist.   He interviewed Chris Kiper, founder of activist firm Legion Partners, for a rare look at his playbook.  Check out the story on page six of the issue.
  • PondelWilkinson volunteered a couple of weeks ago at Working Dreams’ Holiday Toy Event, where PW helped foster children select presents that were donated to the organization.  Following is a picture of the team.Working Dreams
  • And last but certainly not least, Roger Pondel wrote the following New Year’s resolution on transparency.

2016 Resolution: Don’t Forget the Transparency

At the risk saying, “We told you so,” 2015 proved to be a year when companies that failed to heed our mantra, Transparency Adds Value, took it on the chin.

Whether privately owned or publicly traded, in times of crisis or when all is going well, transparency always pays off…period. And the lack thereof, almost always backfires bigtime.

Probably the year’s biggest lack-of-transparency story was Volkswagen’s emission-cheating scandal that actually began more than 10 years ago, long before the news broke. I guess it’s hard to keep those kinds of secrets forever. Want to buy a VW today? How ‘bout an Audi?

In our business, people sometimes have the misimpression that it’s all about spin. (I hate that word, except when it’s part of an exercise class and done to a Latin jazz beat.)

No, it’s not about spin. It’s about journalistic fact finding, developing a communications and messaging strategy, perhaps biting some bullets a la corporate castor oil style…then telling the truth to mitigate the damage and maintain reputation.

And it’s not all about crises. Just look at what happened in 2015 to the valuations of many once-considered-hot, pre-public tech companies that lost billions in combined valuation because of lack of transparency.

Lack of transparency hurts customers, employees and investors alike. And while no one is happy to hear less than stellar corporate news, the market rewards transparency. Companies that do not practice it would do well to heed our mantra in 2016 and beyond.

Here’s to a transparent 2016 that brings peace and prosperity to all!

For The Love of Polling

think it aboutMedia love polls. Data  helps identify trends that can be turned into stories or support or debunk a particular story narrative.

Polls have become instrumental in helping shape politics. Consider the GOP debates for the 2016 presidential election. Approval ratings are determining what candidate gets national camera time and who doesn’t.

Americans love polls too, unless they are asked, “Would you like to take a brief survey?” We get to find out what is the best-tasting ice cream or coffee, what is America’s favorite color (blue by the way), and that four out of five dentists recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum.

Polling in the U.S. pretty much started in the early 19th century during Andrew Jackson’s second presidential bid when supporters conducted polls at rallies. Much has changed since then, partly because in 1932, George Gallup through a new methodology accurately predicted that his mother-in-law would win a local Iowa election for secretary of state. The rest is history.

Today we have all kinds of polls, and not just political ones. There are straw polls, opinion polls, tracking polls, exit polls, and surveys of all kinds. But can polling really influence decisions? If the majority of Americans say they would vote for a particular candidate, would that sway someone’s decisions one way or another? Many political pundits say that President Clinton was notorious for using polls, but did that comprise a desire for popularity from doing what he believed was right? Whatever the reason, he certainly was one of America’s more popular presidents as the country experienced considerable economic growth and expansion during his tenure.

Polling helps keep the media business alive, and as many PR pros can attest, helps define business stories and trends that are so vital to reporters.

There is much debate on polling in America, some even calling for banning them. General consensus, however, believe otherwise, and say that polls serve a greater good. Another important question is how accurate are polls? Most experts agree that, when done right, they are accurate, which is corroborated by modern history, including Gallup’s 1932 prediction.

One organization that is surveying the attitudes and trends shaping America and the world is the Pew Research Center. Did you know that 51 percent of people across 40 countries including the U.S. believe they already are being harmed by climate change? That number drops to 41 percent among Americans. No doubt these numbers can impact policy making decisions whatever side the climate change debate you sit on.

So, it’s probably safe to say polls are good, unless the next poll shows that they aren’t.

- George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Lessons from a Legend

The world has been gripped by Super Bowl mania for the last few weeks. As such, it would probably be fairly simple (and maybe even valuable) to write about the communications lessons that could be learned from Marshawn Lynch’s press conference during Media Day where he famously answered every single question (more than 30 of them) with “I’m here so I don’t get fined.

However, I recently came across a Forbes article about lessons learned from a legend of another sport …baseball great Ernie Banks, better known as “Mr. Cub,” who passed away last week. These lessons supersede football, baseball and every other sport, and can (and should) be applied to our work lives.

Enjoy What You Do: The daily pressures and stresses of our jobs as communicators can sometimes overshadow the enjoyment we get from successfully completing a project, helping a company through a painful period or learning something new. Take time to remember why you do what you do and to appreciate it.

Don’t Begrudge Others’ Success: Comparing your successes to those of others is unproductive. Celebrate in colleagues’ accomplishments and give credit where it’s due. We are all after the same end result, so regardless of how you arrive there, enjoy the victory together.

Embrace Change: This is a big one. Change can be difficult for some and generally affects all. Is your company being acquired? Did you recently lose a client? Does your CEO want to stop providing guidance to the Street when you know it’s the wrong thing to do? Whatever the change, keep an open mind, be part of the solution and use the experience in future endeavors.

Thank you Mr. Cub for your endless optimism. And thank you Geoff Loftis, the Forbes contributor who wrote the original article, for sharing these insights.

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

SEC Enforces Insider Transaction Rules As Boards Authorize Buybacks at Brisk Pace

 

1903 stock certificate of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1903 stock certificate of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Insider buying or selling of shares is one of the most emotional and telltale communications messages a public company can send.

Last week, the SEhanded out charges against 28 officers, directors and major shareholders for violating federal securities laws requiring the prompt reporting of information about transactions in company stock.  In addition, six publicly traded companies were charged for contributing to filing failures by insiders or failing to report their insiders’ filing delinquencies.
 
Curiously, the SEC did not say whether or not those transactions were on the buy or sell side. But this is important stuff and a subject that many investors hold sacrosanct.
 
Some funds immediately sell if they see insiders are selling for anything other than “personal” reasons, such as sending a child to college. And other investors immediately buy when they see insiders buy, believing those insiders must know something positive about the future. The same usually holds true when companies initiate buyback programs.
 
A news release issued by the SEC September 10 said information about insider buying and selling gives investors an “opportunity to evaluate whether the holdings and transactions of company insiders could be indicative of the company’s future prospects.”
 
Granted, it is important to look at much more than insider transactions when evaluating a stock’s viability. But as Peter Lynch, who is still regarded as one of the greatest and smartest investors of all time, has said on numerous occasions: “Insiders may sell their shares for any number of reasons, but they buy for only one—they think the price will rise.”
 
So while it is not necessary in this blog to name names of those violators, as the SEC’s press release did (in case you want to know), 33 of the 34 individuals and companies cited agreed to settle the charges and pay financial penalties totaling $2.6 million.
 
“Using quantitative analytics, we identified individuals and companies with especially high rates of filing deficiencies, and we are bringing these actions together to send a clear message about the importance of these filing provisions,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in the news release.
 
There are usually no such communications issues when public company boards authorize buyback programs. Making a public announcement, usually via news release, is often one of the key reasons such programs are launched—to make a statement that one’s stock is undervalued and we’re not going to take it anymore.
 
In fact, according to an analysis by Barclays PLC as reported in the Wall Street Journal September 16, companies are buying back their own shares these days at the fastest pace since the financial meltdown, and companies with the largest buyback programs have outperformed the broader market by 20 percent.
 
Barclays’ head of U.S. equities strategy, Jonathan Glionna, as reported in the same article, said that among the reasons why companies do stock buybacks, “one is that it seems to work; it makes stocks go up.”

– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

 

PondelWilkinson in Los Angeles Business Journal

PondelWilkinson was recently featured in a Los Angeles Business Journal article on public companies engaging in social media and the implications for disclosure.  Click here to read the article in its entirety.  Following are takeaways:

  • Consider setting up a social media policy that permits official corporate communication to be conveyed through specified social media accounts, not personal accounts;
  • Ensure that social media communications are consistent with other public statements;
  • Determine whether disclaimers are necessary, such as forward-looking statements;
  • Identify someone who will monitor social media communications;
  • When you implement a social media policy, stick with it.

PW Participates in IR Certification Exam

First it was the CPA certification for accountants, instituted in 1917.

 

Then in 1963 came the CFA credential, administered by the CFA Institute, for finance and investment professionals, particularly in the fields of investment management and financial analysis of stocks, bonds and their derivative assets.

 

One year later, in 1964, the Public Relations Society of America, www.prsa.org, launched the APR designation as a way to recognize PR practitioners who have mastered the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to develop and deliver strategic communications.

 

Soon, investor relations professionals, courtesy of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI), www.niri.org, will have a test of their own. The designation has yet to be named, but development of the Body of Knowledge (BOK) is now underway, and the inaugural exam is scheduled for mid-2015.

 

The BOK is the basis for most certification exams, including the CFA. It forms the base of teachings, skills, and research in a given function, along with details on the essential competencies required of a practitioner based on a set number of years of experience.

 

It is with great honor that I am serving as an advisor to the NIRI committee preparing the first BOK for the investor relations profession.  I will be working directly with editor Ted Allen and a distinguished group of 25 investor relations professionals from throughout the nation who will write the definitive book—one that will represent every element of the requisite knowledge that will be tested in the IR certification exam.

 

It’s a big project and a tall order, especially for a profession whose practitioners require a wide range of knowledge, spanning disciplines that include finance, accounting, capital markets, news media, disclosure regulations, public relations practices and virtually all aspects of communications.

 

Canada and the UK currently have IR certification programs, and two U.S. universities—Fordham and the University of San Francisco—offer graduate degrees in investor relations.

 

While validation of competency through an exam or graduate degree may not guarantee practical success, we at PondelWilkinson are proud to have been asked to participate in this milestone endeavor for our industry.  I’ll keep you posted as the program develops, but please do not ask me for any answers to the exam—none of the BOK committee members will have access to it!

 

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

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