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

 

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

 

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!

Yes, it’s Another Post about Activism

I’ve written about activism before, but a recent blog by Bloomberg Business caught my attention and spurred me to write again.

Though probably not a surprise to anyone, activism is on the rise, at least according to a survey conducted by law firm Gibson Dunn. Halfway through 2015, there were nearly as many activist campaigns afoot than for all of 2014. Further, the number of funds engaging in activist activities was higher for the first six month of 2015 than for the full year last year … 42 versus 35, respectively. According to the study, the most common reason for activist involvement so far this year has been board representation, followed by M&A, with return of capital a distant third. The New York Times recently noted that activist hedge funds now manage more than $129 billion in assets, compared with $29 billion just 10 years ago.

What does all of this activity mean? Is activism good for companies? Does it bring about positive change? A recent Wall Street Journal article asked the question: “Are Activist Investors Helping or Undermining American Companies?” After a comprehensive look at how activism has impacted large U.S. companies (greater than $5 billion in market cap), the resounding answer was maybe. According to the Journal, “Activism often improves a company’s operational results—and nearly as often doesn’t.” So, what’s the point?

As Wendell Willkie, II, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and of counsel at Steptoe, wrote for Fortune, activism has gone overboard, stating, “In their quest for quick returns, activists make the mistake of forgetting that it takes time and patience to position any company for success.”

A survey conducted by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) reported in Accounting Today, showed that more than 20 percent of corporate board directors said their boards have been approached by activist investors during the past year. However, 46 percent of those polled do not have a plan in place for responding to activist challenges.

What should companies do when faced with activism? Or perhaps the better question is what should companies do before being faced with activism? Warren Buffet believes that “The best way to keep activists away is to perform reasonably well in your business and also to communicate well with your shareholders,” as noted during a speech at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington.

Willkie says companies should plan for the emergence of an activist by taking proactive steps to increase shareholder value including share repurchases and cost reductions. But what if you can’t head them off at the pass? The Wall Street Journal recommends the growing popular belief that companies should not shun an activist or completely agree to all demands. The NACD survey pointed out that most frequently, boards have expanded compensation explanations in their proxy statements, revised executive compensation plans or implemented (or changed) their dividend and/or stock buyback policies in response to shareholder demands.

In my experience, when an activist comes knocking, most CEOs take it personally and dig their heels in to mount a defense. While that may be the proper response in certain cases, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Know your shareholder base, treat each investor with respect (activist or not) and carefully evaluate any proposals that are sent to the board to ensure that whatever route you take will ultimately result in a win for the company’s shareholders.

— Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com