wilke photo–By Sally O’Dowd

It’s a pleasure to know Paul Wilke, CEO of San Francisco-based Upright Position. Paul and I met on the Internet (as one does) when I was searching “PR for companies planning their initial public offerings”. Since then, we’ve become good friends and colleagues. Always good to network, isn’t it?

Our latest endeavor is this post, which explains Paul’s creative process when telling a company’s story as it prepares for its IPO on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. From SEC regulations to lawyers, PR people face multiple constraints when talking to press, but Paul nevertheless continues to tell compelling corporate stories.

Here’s our interview:

Sally: Paul, you specialize in PR for companies planning IPOs.  There are legal restrictions on what companies can and cannot say but constraints often foster creativity. What is your creative process?

Paul: Every company takes a different approach to its IPO. For many companies, it’s really the company’s first time in the limelight. For others, like Twitter or Facebook, their IPOs are more about celebrating their arrival on a larger stage rather than an introduction. For both types of companies, however, an IPO is a great opportunity to tell their story on their own terms: its origin story, its vision and the culture it fosters among its employees and its customers. To harness these corporate assets, I step back and listen to the people at the heart of the company. They tell me their story, what they’re passionate about and what drives them. They also talk about the company’s frustrations and aspirations.

From there, I try to craft a story that journalists, potential investors and other stakeholders have never heard before and tell it in a way that’s unique to that particular company.

Yours truly on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Yours truly on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Sally: What can companies say, and what can’t they say, according to SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) regulations? There are many rules when a company goes public.

Paul: It’s important to state that the SEC-mandated quiet period (the period of time following the filing of the S-1 and before the SEC declares the registration statement effective) doesn’t mean companies have to go into a cave. The quiet period scares the bejeezus out of people, but I’ve found it to be a very effective time to talk about a company’s core business, rather than products or forecasting (which you can’t talk about during the quiet period).

I advise my clients to use this time to reach out to reporters who aren’t part of the usual gaggle of press who have historically followed the company. To many reporters, especially the ones covering publicly traded companies, the period leading up to a company’s IPO is the first time they’ve dealt with the company. This gives an organization’s executives an amazing opportunity to tell their story the way they want it told.

Sally: Preparing for an IPO can really stress people out! How do you help executives keep it in perspective?

Paul: IPOs can be tricky–lots of emotion and stress among senior management and investors re: stock price.

It’s important that ego doesn’t get in the way of this important moment. An IPO is a huge feather in the cap of any executive going through it…it also has the opportunity to put that executive in a different financial bracket.

These things combined can lead to unintentional moments of hubris and conceit. It’s important to remember, both from a stock price standpoint and a general “place in the world” standpoint that your company isn’t the first to go public. Hell, it might not even be the only IPO on that particular day.

With that in mind, unless you’re Twitter or Alibaba or a company with a huge consumer following, media coverage around your IPO is likely to be limited to financial media and trade media in your vertical. By recognizing that going in, you’re able to have realistic expectations of what kind of coverage to expect.

A designated market maker calls out a stock price on the floor of the NYSE
A designated market maker calls out a stock price on the floor of the NYSE

Sally: What’s the trick for getting through the big day? I mean, being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq is huge.

Paul: There’s one piece of advice I give to every client going through an IPO, and it’s a sports adage: Act like you’ve been there before. Everyone loves an underdog and everyone loves seeing companies and people do well, but no one loves showboating or gloating.

In the context of Wall Street, on IPO day and beyond, people are looking to your company to see if it’s a sound investment, not if you have cool t-shirt slogans or know how to party. Granted, IPO day is a huge cause for celebration, but it’s just one day of what will hopefully be a company’s long history.

Sally: What have you learned about leadership through this process?

upright_position_logo_medium-01Paul: Even the most confident people like to be reassured that what they’re doing is the right thing. It’s a comfort thing. No one’s immune to inner doubt. Speaking of innards, the other thing I’ve learned: Go with your gut. The older I get, the more I am reaffirmed that my inner voice, or the little voice on my shoulder, knows a lot more than I give him credit for.

Sally: And lastly, any advice for PR people when the stakes are so high?

Paul: Just because a company’s executives think they have an incredible company doesn’t always make it so. Just because we’re told to write something down doesn’t make it true. As PR people, we’re trained to tell stories, but the stories have to be rooted in reality. I’ve worked on a few IPOs where heavy egos overshadowed the company and my ability to arrive at a credible story. In the end, those companies don’t survive in the long haul because once it’s all said and done, investors are looking for companies with strong fundamentals and have a vision for the future. They don’t want something faddish.

Sally O’Dowd is founder and CEO of Sally On Media LLC, an integrated marketing and PR firm in New York. Contact Sally: sally at sallyonmedia dot net.

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