Icahn's blog puts more pressure on IR pros

Carl Icahn, an activist investor, launched his long-awaited blog last Thursday, at IcahnReport.com.

Carl Icahn, an activist investor, launched his long-awaited blog last Thursday, at IcahnReport.com. Icahn, who recently mounted a proxy fight in favor of the Yahoo-Microsoft merger, penned his first entry as such: "Often the abuse of shareholders by entrenched management and self perpetuating boards is intolerable... I will continue to fight against these destructive forces... With this blog I hope to provide all shareholders with a full understanding of these matters and build a grassroots movement to stand for real corporate democracy."

That Icahn could use the blog to organize general shareholder discontent in companies or attack specific organizations poses one more challenge to IR pros already hamstrung by the litany of government rules that regulate what they are allowed to say.

"Whether US-based or outside, all [IR pros] have to face stringent regulatory restrictions on their communications, which bloggers do not," says Andrew Goldberg, chairman of the corporate and financial practice at Burson-Marsteller. "It has... put IR pros at a disadvantage."

While many PR practice areas have moved to the digital fray, IR is noticeably reticent.

"The one problem when you rep a company or you're the CEO is everything you say falls under Reg-FD [regulation full disclosure]," says Beverly Jedynak, president of Martin E. Janis & Co., a 50-plus-year-old Chicago firm that specializes in IR. "How do you [blog] where you're providing important information and yet not breaking full disclosure rules?"

The IR community knows that audiences are moving online, but it continues to wrestle with how best to proceed. At the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) annual conference, which took place earlier this month, IR pros flocked to a panel discussion titled, "Is your company or IR department ready for a blog?" Those in attendance openly expressed their concern about bloggers and the prospect of engaging in the conversation.

Monica Maeckle, VP of new media at Business Wire and a participant of the panel, later told PRWeek, "We've been talking about blogging for about three years and IROs are starting to address it a little more. It's an evolution; a slow movement in this general direction."

Maeckle, though, doesn't believe Icahn's report will make a huge difference to the industry as a whole, but notes the problem of standing back without reacting.

"I don't think this singular blog is going to make people run out and crank out their first blog post," she says. "Carl Icahn has things to say and a big audience... The danger is pretending this sort of thing is not happening."

Because blogging is risky, Jedynak suggests that creating an online communications vehicle where the company isn't directly involved might be a solution.

"I would think that what Barack Obama did, the creating of community, if a public company could figure out how to harness that, it's a huge communications tool," she says. "You don't see Obama blogging every day."

Jeff Morgan, president and CEO of NIRI, says the future depends largely on regulation.

"There's going to be more blogging done because it's an easy form of communication," he says. "What's going to evolve is how we make sure we use blogs in compliance with the laws." NIRI, he adds, is pressing the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) for an update on rules to guide the digital conversation.

John White, the SEC director of the division of corporation finance, tempered his NIRI conference address on progress in online communication with a word of caution: Blogs are subject to the same rules as any other sharing of information.

For now, IROs remain wary.

"The regulation environment is geared toward an early digital world, not the world we live in now," Goldberg says. Clients are more likely to come to him for "digital engagement advice" and risk management, rather than help getting into the fray, he adds.

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