Outreach scores well on S&P's priority list

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services realized the need to do a better job of communicating what our ratings are, how they are determined, and how they had actually performed.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services realized the need to do a better job of communicating what our ratings are, how they are determined, and how they had actually performed.

While the overall track record of our ratings was strong (and remains so), the performance of our ratings on US residential mortgage-backed securities fell short of our expectations. To address the issues, in February 2008 we announced 27 steps to improve our governance, make our ratings process more transparent, enhance our analytics, and educate the market about ratings.

This last point was key to the marketing and communications team, which launched a program to educate the media, investors, policymakers, and others around the world about what we do, how we do it, and to help restore confidence in the capital markets.

We began an extensive outreach campaign to meet these stakeholders individually and encourage an open dialogue. Leveraging our 23 global offices, we organized meetings with our local analysts and senior officials, local beat journalists, editors, and editorial managers.  

We've also held more formal media teach-in sessions for journalists, covering ratings and our role in the capital markets. These have included media seminars in many major global cities, as well as briefings for journalism interns at key media outlets in New York.

We have complemented this with op-eds and contributed articles in tier-one media outlets and trade titles, on topics such as the effect of proposed regulation of rating agencies, US municipal debt, and our ratings of Eurozone countries. We published white papers on the business model for credit rating agencies and a global regulatory framework for them. To extend these efforts, we developed www.understandingratings.com, a free site with educational content on Standard & Poor's and credit ratings more generally.   

Last year, we celebrated our 150th anniversary and leveraged it for further outreach. We developed the Future of Finance Forums, major events for investors and media in cities around the world. Speakers included S&P analysts, government officials, such as former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, investors, financial journalists, and senior economists from the financial industry.

The success of the forums led us to organize an event this past June on another timely theme: the future of the US housing market.  The S&P Housing Summit in New York brought together analysts and commentators from S&P and sister companies such as McGraw-Hill Construction, along with senior government officials, industry executives, and experts including Robert Shiller. 

We also developed a year-long internal communications campaign. One key event was S&P's first "Global Toast," with celebrations of S&P's employees in a dozen cities around the world. Our annual employee Global Volunteer Day also carried the theme, focusing philanthropic activities on goals related to the number 150, such as planting 150 trees in local parks or volunteering 150 hours to aid financial literacy programs. Employees were kept current on these efforts throughout the year via email, a dedicated Intranet page, and desktop calendars that had an interesting finance-related fact each day.

Our social media program has also been a key outreach element. S&P Ratings Services' Twitter account has attracted 6,000 followers since launching late last year, with about 200 new followers added per month. Our Credit-Matters TV interviews on key topics have been downloaded 270,000 times this year, doubling 2010's numbers. At the June Housing Summit we launched our latest social media endeavor: www.housingviews.com, a housing industry blog, which has already had more than 75,000 page views. 

The number of market participants who read our reports, view our webcasts and podcasts, and attend our conferences demonstrates that the end users of our ratings - investors - continue to value S&P's analysts' opinions. This is especially true in an increasingly competitive environment as new rating agencies emerge and mandates to use ratings are removed from government regulation. While there is more work to be done, our marketing and communications program has been a key part in highlighting the value S&P brings to investors. 

Catherine Mathis is SVP of marcomms at financial research and analysis company Standard & Poor's. Along with Moody's and Fitch Ratings, it is one of the Big Three credit-rating agencies.

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