As one of the few people that are actually blogging about investor relations, all of this is grist for my mill, and I thought I would share a couple of thoughts about where I think all of this is heading. I start with two premises: first, corporate IR bloggers are at an inherent disadvantage to individual bloggers such as myself, and two, there can be a useful, but limited role for corporate IR blogging in the future.
First the disadvantages: 1.) Regulatory. The aforementioned John White of the SEC in his address to NIRI members was quite specific in stating that anything corporations put on their blogs for viewing by the public is subject to the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws, namely Rule 10b-5. While this is not new news (he was just reiterating a previously stated position of the Commission), it certainly will prove to be an overhang to the development of blogs that provide meaningful information. Most investor relations officers that I know are reluctant to answer analyst questions in email format for fear of creating a paper trail, so putting their thoughts in a blog on a public web site with the overhang of antifraud liability is almost beyond the pale. Why would you do one more thing to create a public record that can be used against you when things go wrong?
2.) Corporate. Most corporations function collectively, with information and corporate positions passing through multiple layers of approvals, from the corporate communications department to the general counsel and numerous people in between. This process means that every phrase is pondered, considered and revised. The process also means that almost all of the individual’s voice is smoothed away, opinions are eliminated and certainly all of the humor is drained away. The result is the bland pabulum served up in most corporate press releases - it’s just not very interesting stuff. Blogging, on the other hand, is a solitary and somewhat spontaneous pursuit. It is designed to express the individual’s view of events, unfiltered by the editing process (this can be good or bad, depending on who’s writing). When I get an idea for a blog post, I sit down, write it and post it within a matter of hours. Nobody reviews it, and my opinions, of which there are many, (hopefully) make the resulting article more interesting.
3. Bureaucratic When I sat in on the session on blogging at the NIRI conference, I was struck by the nature of the questions that attendees had. The questions were not, “What sort of information do you include in your blog?” or “How do you make your blog interesting?” but rather, “Did you have to modify your disclosure policy to allow you to set up a blog?” and “What sort of approvals do you have to get before you post to your blog?” This type of thinking is very prevalent in corporate America and especially in investor relations, where regulation and legal liability permeate everything. Things have to be done by the book, with a system for everything. It also means that for many companies, establishing and writing on a blog are not worth the hassle, unless and until they are dragged, kicking and screaming, into the blogosphere. On the other hand, in the age of the internet, everyone with access to the web has his own printing press. Individuals are much more nimble about what they can say, and how quickly it gets said. It stands the whole system on its head, and size becomes a disadvantage for corporations, which simply cannot react as quickly as the collective individuals on the web.
With all of these disadvantages, where can corporate IR blogs be useful? First, as restatements of the obvious. In spite of what it sounds like, this is a useful function. Much time in investor relations is taken up with answering obvious questions: industry position, product offering, company values and other important, but common matters. With the decline in annual reports, the web site will increasingly become the source for this type of information. Investor relations officers should take a proactive stance in writing about such matters. Or, you can go brain dead and repeat the answers verbally 300 times per year.
Secondly, as a reporting function. Not everyone can make it to your analyst day or has the time to listen to 6 hours of webcasts. Someone who can succinctly write about what you are presenting to the street can help you reach a larger audience. This can be particularly helpful in reaching smaller money management shops and individual investors. With the shrinking of the sell side, investor relation departments need to think of alternative ways to reach more of the buy side and also individual investors, and this is one potential way.
Finally, and probably more controversially, investor relations blogs should track and disclose the types of questions they are receiving from investors. Almost every company has aspects of its operations that investors do not understand particularly well. This can arise for a variety of reasons, but usually because the accounting in the area is complex or convoluted (think deferred taxes or pension accounting) or the company is doing something new and unusual. If investors are constantly asking questions about the area, that in itself is important information. To the company it’s important because it tells them they are not doing a good job on disclosure. To investors it’s important because it gives them an idea about what other people on the street are thinking.
I would write more, but my editor says its time for lunch…