Here’s another item for you to toss on your list of “Pending Threats To The Way We’ve Always Done It.” Taking action on this item will be messy. It crosses a few functional areas, it can be linked to no business or revenue objectives, it’s too small to attract the interest of an advocate and you may find that you’re poking a hornet’s nest.
Still with me? Here’s the initiative: It’s high time that you retire the courtesy titles used in your communications when you refer to your economists, strategists, portfolio managers and analysts.
From the perspective of someone who spends a lot of time on social networks and on others’ Websites and then returns to mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) sites, those Mr. and Ms. titles that precede the names of your home team refer back to a different day and brand your firm as out of touch.
Effective communicating today involves access and transparency, informal settings, online exchanges—interactions where both sides of a “conversation” are equal. The imposition of a title impedes that by implying a power difference between the money manager and a client (financial advisor or investor) that’s misaligned. Who works for whom here?
As I was writing this post, I pinged Susan Weiner of InvestmentWriting.com. Susan has a long list of credentials as an investment writer, including for asset managers, and I wondered what she thought.
“I have an odd perspective on courtesy titles, thanks to my Ph.D. in Japanese history,” Susan responded. “In Japan, you always apply courtesy titles to your customers. You don't apply courtesy titles to employees because that raises them above your customers.”
While it was probably not the intent to elevate asset manager executives and staff above the customers way back when the practice of titles was adopted, that's the inadvertent effect in your communications today.
The exchange with Susan ended with her noting that using the last name on second and subsequent references is common in corporate use and business journalism. True. But I’m not convinced that dropping titles and defaulting to last names will be the final answer as your firm seeks to engage by becoming increasingly social.
Imagine promoting a chat with Facebook “friends” (as Vanguard and iShares have done this year) and referring to your executive by his last name. Too cold for the room.
Why can CNBC call your strategist by his first name and not your clients? Let me amend that. In their exchanges with your portfolio managers, financial advisors are on a first name basis, right? So, that leaves the courtesy titles for only the people who read your content (including your investors). Yeah, that’s not going to work.
De-stuffing The Shirts
As financial services providers necessarily strive to shed their reputation for being stuffy, their stuffed shirts have to go, too. Granted, even I fall back to earth when I try to visualize JP Morgan referring to their boss as Jamie. But commentators and others call Dimon “Jamie,” don’t they? I have sometimes wondered whether the courtesy titles appear on sites because they’re consistent with corporate culture or because the copy was prepared by deferential junior staff.
See this recent post for more on how a few asset manager Twitter accounts provide a far less buttoned-up view than their Websites. There’s a big dis-connect for the follower engaged by a pithy Twitter account who clicks through to visit a site. Is that acceptable or do you agree with me that something's got to give?
Just review your current approach. Call a meeting with those representing the firm’s interests (brand, PR, investment management, marketing, etc.) and take a look at how you’re presenting your subject matter experts to a world that you want to engage with. The discussion may trigger a broader exploration into the evolving voice of the company and the level of informality that you’re all comfortable with.
For the purpose of this post, the essential question is: Why do you need those titles?
You may hear: “That’s how we’ve always done it.” Uh-huh, things change. Or you may hear: “That’s how The New York Times and Wall Street Journal do it.” Right…and they are publications and you are an asset management firm. You have different business objectives. A better comparison might be to companies you'd like to emulate. (Also, those two publications are hold-outs, Associated Press style doesn't call for courtesy titles.)
A spot-check of mutual fund and ETF sites and social presences shows a lot of deviation. Some firms will refer to their thought leaders by their first names on social sites and their blogs but not on their corporate domains. Most use last names on second and subsequent references in press releases, which is a bow to that medium.
Firms as diverse as Eaton Vance, MFS, Wisdom Tree and iShares are among the firms that use first names on second reference on the sites’ biographies (with some exceptions). To my mind, that’s the most contemporary thing to do and gives your firm the most communications flexibility and appeal.
What are you thinking?