Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

By JASON SPARK
LinkedIn / March 20, 2020

“Investor relations teams navigating COVID-19” was the title of yesterday’s conference call I hosted for NIRI San Diego. Among all of the valid and unsettling points brought up during the discussion, there was one main takeaway: In these unprecedented times, we all need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Now is not the time to shy away from communicating and engaging with all stakeholders (for many IROs this includes employees, patients, partners as well as investors). Sometimes this will mean talking to investors without answers, hopping on video calls from your virtual office, or working from home with kids in the background. You are certainly not alone. All of our colleagues and counterparts are facing the same circumstances. We are all in this together.

In a small San Diego survey the NIRI team distributed to local companies, we learned that roughly 60% of them had not publicly commented on the business impact of the pandemic. I’m not surprised by this statistic. I’ve worked with many organizations rapidly collecting information to develop those answers, and I expect them to provide updates in various forms in the coming weeks.

What was surprising? 18% of these companies were in quiet periods—self-imposed ones. And while I don’t know the extent of such policies, I think this an incredibly dangerous tactic. Avoiding shareholders and other external stakeholders during these uncertain times is not the answer. There must be some form of engagement or response. In a time when communication is more important than ever, I hope companies will follow their crisis plans and make responsiveness one of their top priorities. Now is not the time for self-imposed quiet periods.

But not all of the survey’s responses were disheartening. I was impressed that most companies were adopting virtual meetings, with 50% or more moving (or already had moved) to video conferencing. While conferences, roadshows, and valuable scientific and medical meetings in the foreseeable future have been cancelled, it doesn’t mean we need to cancel those interactions. Most scheduled events can continue with video calls or even old-fashioned teleconferencing. We’re creating ways to host our own virtual events in place of those cancelled events, including video webcasts with investigators to review data presentations. I’ll be curious to see how our behavior changes in the future after discovering how much more productive we can be with less travel. We can’t replace the in-person interaction, but I expect that teams will find a better balance.

Another surprising result? Nearly 75% of respondents expected to be working from home for the next two to four weeks. One article in IR Magazine suggested that the buyside perception was the earliest in-person meetings would resume is mid-April. I worry that expectations are off—perhaps way off—and we should be preparing for a much longer, more sustainable virtual communications plan. I do hope I am wrong, but I am prepping for longer.

Adam Feuerstein of STAT News wrote on March 19, “Let’s use this opportunity to rethink investor relations.” And I agree. I encourage all biopharma communications teams to use this time, space and period of uncertainty to rethink our strategies not only now, but in a post-pandemic world.

So, what are my predictions for when we come out on the other side of this? There will be winners and losers – and it will be based on management teams more than milestones. I think management teams will be rewarded for their poise, their calm, and—mostly importantly—their transparency and engagement in times of crisis. Their relationships with long-term investors will be stronger, they will have earned greater trust and confidence from their employees, and they will be better positioned to execute their business strategy in the future.

We can all agree that this is not the time for “business as usual.” But it is the time to lead.

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