When the Viral Fog Lifts

Those who live in Southern California fully understand the terms “May gray” and “June gloom.” It’s that time of year when the sun comes out late afternoon. The temperature isn’t that cold, but gloominess permeates the air and stays around for most of the daylight hours. Most people hate it.

This year, at least for those who live in Los Angeles, the pre-summer grayness is no big deal. There’s a lot more to complain about than the weather.

Regardless of who you ask, or what television news station you watch, when that sun is fully bright again, there is consistent agreement that a “new normal” will surface. I am not one for pontificating about what’s ahead, especially when so much of the future remains racked with uncertainty. But in our niche of investor relations and strategic public relations, I will throw caution to the wind and make a few prognostications about how our sector already is transforming:

  • Few, if any, in-person non-deal road shows (NDRs), but plenty of virtual ones. CEOs and CFOs will love that. It will keep them in the office and save lots of time, to say nothing about eliminating many expenses, like air fare, hotels, limos, fancy restaurant meals. Virtual NDRs are in. They may be easier to schedule, but they must be visual and engaging to hold interest. Hello Zoom.
  • Virtual annual meetings already are the new norm. They will be on the rise and probably never go away. CEOs and CFOs may like that, too, but investors may not. Management will control the question and answer chat button, and the democratization of public companies may take one giant step backward. So watch carefully for a rise in activism for those companies that aren’t communicative and transparent, aren’t performing and aren’t unlocking shareholder value.
  • Desk-side briefings with journalists are history. There are fewer business journalists these days, anyway, and their time has become quite limited for casual background coffee klatches. A phone call or video interview will have to do, but there had better be something cogent to say.
  • Quarterly conference calls will become even more important. But management teams sorely need to interject more life into their presentations and not merely recite numbers. Yes, they will likely still be scripted, but it would be better if they could be turned into quarterly Zoom fireside chats for the Q&A portion.
  • Investor days are still important, but as with annual shareholder meetings, for the foreseeable future, they will be virtual. This will save money, possibly attract more attendees, and eliminate the free-lunch bunch. But to be effective, they need to be live, and engage with the audience, or attendees will be distracted while management drones on.  
  • Virtual investor conferences already have arrived and will likely increase in number. But be careful which ones to attend, either as a presenter or an investor. They can prove to be a waste of time. From the issuers’ perspectives, it’s important to know who’s really paying attention. Is anyone really listening? Sponsors should do whatever it takes to do it right, such as using video to make it worthwhile and come alive.
  • Assure that “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” syndrome does not set it. With much of the above happening in the privacy of one’s home office – or at least not in the offices of investors and analysts – greater attention must be paid to messaging for those who are listening.

The times, and the market, are changing fast. Balance sheets are more important than ever. Investors are looking for corporate measures to assure that capital is being deployed in value-accretive activities. With fewer, if hardly any, companies providing financial guidance, investors want to see actions that can translate into trackable metrics. They want to hear from management teams more often, and perhaps in new, or old, ways, like maybe bringing back the quarterly report. And once regarded principally as feel-good commentary, stockholders today look increasingly to investing in companies that focus on environmental, social and governance measures.

Unlike a CEO of a publicly traded company providing financial guidance on a quarterly earnings call – with significant consequences if wrong – no real harm has been done if my forecast for the future of investor relations is wrong. And maybe, just maybe, if I am right, the transformation will be good for all when the viral fog lifts. Except, of course, for missing some great meals in those fancy New York restaurants while on an NDR.  

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

If …

Do you remember any of your elementary school teachers? Think back for a moment if any remain in your memory.

My kindergarten teacher at Bateman Elementary School, on the north side of Chicago, was Mrs. Hart. I only remember her because it was kindergarten, and she was my first teacher. No one went to pre-school in those days.

The next teacher I remember was Mrs. Castle, third grade, at Laurel Elementary School, in the heart of the borscht belt, near Melrose and Fairfax, in Los Angeles. I only recall her name because we just moved to LA, mid-semester, and I was the new kid in class. She was nice to me, even though I was a little behind in my knowledge of cursive.

Then we moved again when I was in the sixth grade, also mid-semester, and again I was the new kid in class at Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood. Not easy when you are painfully shy and eleven years old. But this teacher, Irv Sherins, was different.

Mr. Sherins paid lots of attention to me. He even assigned one of the kids, Dennis Gass, to be my buddy and show me around the school. (Dennis and I remained friends through high school. He enlisted in the Army right after graduation and died in Vietnam.)

You might be wondering what my memory of Irv Sherins has to do with investor relations and strategic public relations, which, after all, is what this blog is supposed to be about.

I so vividly remember Mr. Sherins – not because he treated me well and made me feel comfortable as the new kid in class – but because of a two-letter word he wrote on a corner of the blackboard, that was never erased. It was a word that has relevancy for our clients, our staff and corporate executives, among others, everywhere: The word is “If…”

Between today’s political stress, the coronavirus, and yes, the steep stock market decline, impacting valuations and business conditions worldwide, the meaning of that one small word written by Mr. Sherins more than 50 years ago, and never erased, can help all of us now. It was the first word and title of a famous Rudyard Kipling poem circa 1895. It’s interpretation by Mr. Sherins:

If you can keep your head while others around you are not…

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Fax me! No really, Fax me!

Believe it or not, “faxing” is as prevalent today as it was during its heyday of the 80s and 90s.

Financial services, healthcare, government and manufacturing industries still rely on fax technology, mostly because of security and regulatory reasons.

For many corporate communications veterans, the fax machine used to be a lifesaver. No more sending press releases via snail mail.

While cloud-based fax services have advanced the standalone fax machine, the basic principle of sending information between two dedicated points remains the same.

The same goes for corporate communications. Social media, cable and other innovations have transformed how we communicate, but what we say is still paramount.

Consider these vital communications imperatives still relevant today:

  • Make the story interesting. Whether targeting Wall Street or Main Street, the narrative needs to be noteworthy. Not every company or organization will be doing super exciting work. Leverage a unique characteristic to help cut through the media clutter.
  • Know thy audience. Rule number one when it comes to communications. Deeply understand the various stakeholders within a company or brand’s ecosystem.
  • Communicate clearly. Keep it simple and refrain from too much jargon and industry buzz words. Sometimes the use of technical terminology is required, but it’s important to explain in layman’s terms.
  • Stay on message. Keep it tight. Generally, too many action items or message points can confuse an audience.
    Spell check. Apparently good grammar and correct spelling seem to have been forgotten, particularly when communicating on social media. Review before sending. Period.

The communications industry will continue to undergo technological innovations that will alter the way Information is conveyed. But whether spoken or written, communicating effectively is a priority that should never change.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Benefitting from a Small Thought

I’m not generally a fan of motivational speakers and their messages. While such speakers are usually talented and entertaining orators, try the next day to remember what they said, and… umm, it’s usually impossible.

Recently, I heard one of these guys speak. He left the audience mesmerized with his oratory skills. But more importantly, he gave everyone one small, easy-to-remember thought as a take-away. I heard this fellow speak at a two-day meeting for the senior staff of one of our client companies, about 60 people in total. It is an annual event meant to build internal kinship and foster collegial bonding, as well as a time when the management team presents lessons they learned during the past year, along with business updates.

Sprinkled in between the corporate presentations at this year’s meeting, the speaker’s first words were “I am not a motivational speaker.” But he was.

He has published a book, but I refuse to mention it here, since this blog is not a promotional vehicle. I am not even going to mention the speaker’s name for the same reason. But before I divulge the thought he aptly imparted, which is really more of a motivational metaphor, you should know that the speaker assured the audience that by putting it into everyday practice, you can achieve results that “are beyond your wildest expectations.” That’s a pretty wild exclamation, but, of course, one must take into consideration that motivational speakers are known for using hyperbole.

He said that all you need to do is write the number 211 on a piece of paper, place it prominently on your desk, and then remember – metaphorically speaking – what it stands for. Huh?

You are probably scratching your head at this point, having invested the past minute reading this blog, and not having the foggiest idea why you are continuing to do so, or where this is heading. So here it is, direct from the book: “At 211 degrees, water is hot. At 212 degrees, just one degree more, water boils. With boiling water comes steam. And with steam, you can power a train.”

The point is that going the extra mile, pushing just a little harder in every task, can make a tremendous difference. One small extra degree can produce exponential results: 211 to 212. We follow that metaphor at PondelWilkinson. It helps us perform beyond our clients’ expectations, and it really works.

— Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Thoughts on Board Diversity

Board diversity has been in the news for quite some time, but more recently, California became the first state to mandate that publicly traded companies headquartered in the state name women to their boards. Countries outside the U.S. have enacted similar laws. 

The new law stipulates that companies with at least five directors will need to have at least one female member by the end of this year, and two or three female members, depending on the size of the board, by 2021. According to the Wall Street Journal, the mandate in California could accelerate boardroom diversification across the country. 

But does diversity really matter? 

As noted in Forbes by professor Katherine W. Phillips from the Kellogg School of Management, diversity can result in better decisions. She explained that diversity “often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict,” which she believes can spur new idea generation and creative solutions. 

Lisa Wardell, president and chief executive officer of Adtalem Global Education, wrote in Corporate Board Member that “board composition sends a powerful signal to current and future workforces about an organization’s commitment to equality of opportunity. It also signifies a commitment to performance, since studies show clearly the benefits of a diverse workplace.  McKinsey & Company found companies with strong gender diversity among their executives were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability compared with peers.”

Mike Myatt, chairman of N2Growth, recently offered a top-10 list in favor of diversity. You can read it here

Last year, Elizabeth Warren, a current U.S. senator and 2020 presidential candidate, introduced a bill called the Accountable Capitalism Act, that, among other things, would require that workers at companies generating more than $1 billion in revenue directly elect 40 percent of a company’s board of directors. This seems, to me, a bit more controversial than the new California mandate. In fact, when conducting research for this blog, I couldn’t find much in support of her proposal. Interviewed on CNBC, professor Jeffrey Miron from Harvard University said that Warren’s proposal “will create a whole set of new rules that the federal government will enforce. Those rules will not be clean, explicit or simple.  They’ll be messy, they’ll be complicated. [It will create a] huge ability for companies to evade and avoid.”

So, what are companies doing, if anything, to increase board diversity? 

A survey conducted by the National Association of Corporate Directors late last year showed that more than half of directors who responded said that their organizations have board diversity goals. Of those, 70 percent sited the need to enhance the cognitive diversity of boards, while almost half said that board diversity is a moral imperative. Barriers to diversity mentioned by 54 percent of respondents were the lack of an open board seat, while 53 percent cited finding diverse candidates that meet the board’s skill needs.

I’m as eager as the next person to see boards diversify and become more representative of current demographics and the investors they represent. But I’m also in favor of building boards with the best talent. As Myatt noted, “You’ll never hear me recommend diversity solely for the sake of checking a box, but when diversity in the boardroom offers so many benefits to the CEO (and to the entire organization) it’s nothing short of irresponsible for chief executives not to place their board composition under the microscope.”

It remains to be seen if recent efforts around board diversity will result in increased shareholder value, but it’s absolutely worth it for companies to look at their entire organizations, from top to bottom, to ensure diversity throughout its ranks. According to Wardell, “Performance comes from finding the best talent. And diversity, at its most basic level, is about increasing the pool of available talented people from which to choose.”

Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Three Toots on Hitting the Big Five-0

By now, those who know us, know that PondelWilkinson turns 50 this year.

A half-century is a long time for any company to be in business. Throughout those five decades, while we have tooted the horns of our clients—we have not tooted our own. So, please allow me this rare exception to make three little toots:

First, a toot to the firm’s founder and my former boss, Mel Rifkind, 93, who kicked things off in 1968, when I was still in school and had not the foggiest idea that our kind of business even existed. Mel was a pioneer in our industry, who founded our firm on four principles that remain at our core today: apply sound thinking to meet unique client challenges; attract the best talent, regardless of position; deliver quality, responsive service; and always operate in a respectful and ethical manner.

Second, a toot to our clients and all associated with our firm for the confidence you continue to place in our organization.

And third, a deep personal thanks to our loyal, talented, hard-working staff, the best professionals in our industry, and to those who have served us in the past, of course including my late partner of 25 years, Cecilia Wilkinson. People are our only assets, our secret sauce, and our treasures.

Now for the fun stuff. What else happened in 1968, the year our firm was founded?

  • Sixty Minutes made its debut on CBS.
  • Apollo 8, the second manned spacecraft, orbited another world, the moon, for the first time.
  • The Special Olympics held its first event.
  • Our very own trade association was born, NIRI.
  • Sadly, Martin Luther King Jr., 39, and Robert Kennedy, 42, were assassinated.
  • The 911 Emergency Line was launched.
  • The Big Mac was introduced for 49-cents.
  • President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
  • A few famous people were born: Will Smith; Naomi Watts; Hugh Jackman; Marc Anthony; Ashley Judd; Molly Ringwald; Gary Coleman; Josh Brolin; Cuba Gooding Jr.; Dodgers Hideo Nomo, Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza.
  • Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin had the best-selling albums.
  • The most popular movies were The Graduate, Funny Girl and Planet of the Apes.

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Cocktail Party Talk

What do you say when you’re at a cocktail party, summer BBQ, or some other social gathering where you’re sure to meet new people who will invariably ask what you do for a living? If you’re a doctor, lawyer, accountant, musician (or one of a host of other professions) the answer is quite easy.  What do you say, however, if you’ve been practicing investor relations for more than 25 years?  Does anybody not in the business understand what that means?  If you generalize and say, “I’m in public relations,” most would probably confuse you for a publicist, with a glitzy lifestyle keeping the latest celebrity in the news and out of trouble.

At PondelWilkinson, we practice both investor relations and strategic public relations, so I asked some of my colleagues how they describe what we do (I’m always looking for ways to be more entertaining at parties). Here is a summary of their answers:

  • We offer strategic counsel to a host of clients with wide-ranging needs. We help clients with financial and general business messaging, maintain positive relationships with investors and communicate with key stakeholders to drive positive business results.
  • PondelWilkinson is a specialized public relations firm, concentrating on corporate matters, from public company issues such as investor communications, to liaison on behalf of public or private companies with the business/financial news media, to crisis communications.
  • We help people/organizations communicate with their key audiences, whether it’s other businesses, consumers or shareholders.
  • PondelWilkinson represents publicly traded companies by interfacing with shareholders, analysts and investors on behalf of clients. We pitch media, plan events and write press releases. Basically, we help companies raise their reputations and build support for the client.
  • We help companies tell their stories to key audiences, including investors, media, employees and customers.
  • We help public and private companies communicate.

Not one of my peers used the words investor relations in describing how we spend our professional time (although one did use public relations). I generally don’t either.  My usual answer is that “We are a consulting firm helping companies, both publicly traded and private, communicate with key audiences.”

How do you describe what you do? We’d love to hear from you.

— Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Exceptional CEOs

I’ve worked with many CEOs over the last 25 years. Some great, some good, and some who didn’t quite make the grade.  The great ones had a few traits in common…they were excellent communicators, compassionate and whip smart.  (Italicized text represents my own editorial.)

The Harvard Business Review recently outlined four essential behaviors of successful CEOs:

  • Making quick decisions with conviction. Decisive.
  • Engaging for impact. Collaborative.
  • Proactively adapting. Doer.
  • Delivering reliably. Expectation setter.

Russell Reynolds Associates, a global search and leadership advisory firm, offers the following in their thought leadership blog:

  • Willingness to take calculated risks. Gutsy.
  • Bias toward action. Doer.
  • Ability to efficiently “read” people. Insightful.
  • Forward thinking. Innovative.
  • Intrepid. Courageous.

And from CNBC reporting on a panel at SXSW which examined the traits of many successful Silicon Valley CEOs:

  • Psychopathic???

I admit, this one stumped me. Dictionary.com describes psychopathy as “a mental disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.”

Doesn’t exactly scream successful CEO to me. However, venture capitalist Bryan Stolle believes that psychopaths are common within the CEO ranks because to successfully start a company you need to be “uncompromising in your vision, which requires a hearty dose of both ego and persistence, and you have to be willing to sacrifice almost everything for success.”  Still not sure I buy it.

Dr. Igor Galynker, the associate chairman for research in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, believes that “lacking empathy, more often than not, will help you in an environment where you have to make decisions that create negative consequences by necessity for other people.” I’ve never known or worked with a psychopathic CEO, but according to a 2016 study, 21 percent of senior professionals in the U.S. had “clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits.”  Kind of frightening for those working with these 21 percent.

While collaboration, innovation and insightfulness are clearly important CEO qualities, I suppose it is possible that a little bit of ego, tenacity and charm could also result in success.

Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Annals of Communication—Thank you, Dave

I had a breakfast meeting the other day at the Mid-Town Café on 56th between Lex and Third in New York City. It’s not a fancy place, but one of many non-descript diners where the waitresses call you honey as you walk in the door and ask if you want coffee as you are getting seated.

A view shows U.S. postal service mail boxes at a post office in Encinitas

The meeting was arranged by my long-time colleague, Gary Fishman, as a casual introduction to meet the principal of an investor relations advisory firm, similar to PondelWilkinson. For purposes of this blog, I’ll just call him Dave.

No need here to discuss our conversation, which is not the point of this piece, so fast forward to the end of our meal. (I had oatmeal and blueberries, the other two gents had eggs.) The waitress brought our check. All three of us made a move to our wallets. My credit card was out first, and with the total check being $19.95, I volunteered to buy. Then we went on our ways.

Within a couple of hours, I received a thank-you email from Gary for my time and for buying breakfast. I was going to email David to tell him how much I enjoyed meeting him, but thought I would wait a while, for certainly he also would be sending me a thank-you email…or so I thought. Then I forgot about it.

I returned to California, and the following day, I received a letter in the mail. It was from Dave, saying how much he enjoyed our visit and thanking me for playing host. In today’s era of speed, did I need instant thanks via email anyway? Probably not.

Receiving the letter struck a chord. While the message could have been precisely the same in an email, there’s something to be said for taking the time to send a letter through the U.S. Postal Service…it commands attention. Compared with hundreds of email messages that we all receive every day, it was the only personal communication I received via mail all week.

— Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

 

 

 

 

 

Is LinkedIn the New Facebook?

LinkedIn these days seems to be less about posting “business” content and more around publishing selfies, memes and math puzzles.

Ironically, these Facebook-like posts generally get more traction. But all engagement is not always good engagement, just like all publicity is not always good publicity.

Interestingly enough, the Pew Research Center found that more workers ages 18-49 have discovered information on social media that lowered their professional opinion of a colleague, compared to those who garnered an improved estimation of a co-worker from online platforms. So, be careful what you post.

LinkedIn prides itself on “connecting the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” What’s happened, however, is the line between “work” and “consumer” content has been blurred, causing LinkedIn professionals to lambast what they see as irrelevant posts, stating: “This is not Facebook!”

A recent post on LinkedIn.

A graphic that accompanied a post on LinkedIn.

The reality is that LinkedIn is competing with Facebook. Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network announced it was testing a feature that would let page administrators create job postings and receive applications from candidates. This undoubtedly will put pressure on LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions business, which comprised 65 percent of the company’s 3Q 2016 revenues.

With 467 million members in over 200 countries and territories, LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft, is growing at a rate of more than two new members per second. This quails in comparison to Facebook’s 1.79 billion monthly active users, but the company’s growth shows more professionals see value in the platform.

So what does the future look like for LinkedIn? Consider the following:

  • LinkedIn will become an even more valuable business networking tool among business professionals, surpassing Pew’s estimate of the 14 percent of professionals who use the online platform for work-related purposes.
  • “Irrelevant” posts will continue, at least in the short term, but will have an adverse effect on those who publish non-related content.
  • Thoughtful, engaging and pertinent posts that resonate with key audiences will generate positive engagement.
  • Business organizations and individuals will learn how to leverage this network beyond recruitment and job searches.

Much can be said by the old adage “all work and no play …,” so it’s refreshing to see some brevity in our daily work lives. But these matters may be best suited for Facebook and not LinkedIn.

— George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com