web conferences

web conferencesThe Return of the 'Talking Heads'

I have never met Ted Craver, a senior vice president and chief financial officer with Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, a multibillion-dollar energy holding company. I don't know what he looks like. We have never even talked over the telephone. Despite that, I know when Craver took his most recent vacation, how he has been spending his time as CFO and when he has been suffering from a cold. More important, he sounds credible.

Craver is what is becoming more and more accepted and common in the communication field: a "talking head" nouveau, gracing the airwaves and streamed audio feeds of regular webcasts and conference calls involving targeted niche audiences, such as creditors, investors, B2B customers and the news media.

Edison's principal subsidiary, Southern California Edison Co., one of the U.S.'s largest investor-owned utilities, has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for much of 2001, and as a result, the parent company CFO has been hosting a regular twice-a-week series of conference calls with creditors, which news media, regulators and other public and private sector stakeholders can monitor via the Internet or phone lines.

Part of my life as an independent writer includes tracking the energy industry for a string of national trade publications and daily newspapers, and as a specialized freelance writer who ultimately lives and dies by e-mail, phone and fax, I have found myself spending increasing hours daily and weekly--including Sundays--participating in or monitoring conference calls and webcasts.

When two tele-giants--Comcast and AT&T--bumped heads over Comcast's attempted hostile takeover this summer, it was appropriate that the AT&T board "met" via a conference call to consider what to do with the unwanted US$41 billion stock swap bid for the AT&T cable business. A day earlier, Comcast had used a conference call to financial news media and analysts to explain its takeover move. For these companies, of course, part of their revenue stream is derived from electronic conferences.

Only a few years ago, the broadcast news media-inspired use of press conferences was waning as a tool. The worst thing organizations and politicians could do was provide "talking heads" for a visual medium thirsty for action--pictures and sound. Strangely, with the advancement of technology and the advent of webcasting and conference calling to convey information, tell stories and "interact" with target audiences, the talking heads are back.

Their platforms require only a simple telephone or Internet connection--ubiquitous tools these days for even junior employees or want-to-be entrepreneurs. We have come full circle from Marshall McLuhan to a point where the medium today is decidedly no longer the message. Content trumps personalities, and visuals are less important than the spoken word.

Only a few years ago, I would not have subjected myself to an in-person press briefing or a day-long training conference that trotted out one ill-prepared, inarticulate presenter after another. Now I sometimes go through four or five hours a day of conference calls and audio web conferences in which speakers are frequently unsure of what to say, are difficult to understand, and talk over some of their co-presenters. Sometimes the technology breaks down and even the interactive portions can be frustrating. Nevertheless I keep hooking up to these sessions, mostly because they are real time, and I am hungry for timely information.

Whether the cause is the Internet as a medium or the insatiable appetite it has saddled us with, target audiences are ready to listen, record and take notes when they use a computer or telephone conferencing hookup to receive information. And the communicators who know this the best are investor relations and political practitioners. Their respective primary constituencies -- analysts and reporters -- feed off these sessions.

For managing, time and place are no longer major considerations. Immediacy -- always a desired attribute -- now can be created by the act of holding a conference call or Internet-based conference, often over the Internet with only minutes of advance notice. What in the days of physical meetings and in-person presentations would be considered "poor" times to make major announcements now can be advantageous.

E-mailed, print information that is timely can be just as advantageous, because in today's environment it is much more likely to be extracted literally and used by reporters and analysts who can readily cut-and-paste on deadline and then edit the information so it appears they conceived all of it themselves. That was harder to do, and news media were more reluctant to do it, with traditional hard copies of news announcements.

The truth is that the information highway's content-starved offshoots are making everyone who depends on them thirst for the ever-elusive information with which to fill space.

In four years, a Boston-based firm called CCBN, which originally stood for "Corporate Broadcast Network" has built a thriving business with three products aimed almost exclusively at investor relations and public relations professionals for major organizations, mostly private sector; publicly traded companies.

Webcasts and conference calls are one of the three areas they concentrate on, and in the second quarter of 2001, the firm saw a 50 percent jump in business over the first quarter. CCBN did more than 3,000 webcasts and conference calls in the second quarter of 2001, according to its Boston-based spokesperson, Greg Radner; who rates his firm as a market leader in the field.

"A lot of our clients today are using webcasting for what I would call PR events with announcements, mergers/acquisitions, trading, etc.," Radner says. "We're seeing our own clients taking advantage of the service, so it is an area we will probably head in more proactively in the PR space."

"There has been a lot of growth in both web and audio conferencing," says David Alexander, an analyst with the research part of Frost & Sullivan, a San Jose, Calif.-based marketing and training consultant, which completed a survey of web and audio conferencing in early summer.

Revenues for audio conferences jumped about 30 percent from US$1.09 billion in 1999 to $1.39 billion last year, said Alexander; noting that the percentage growth in web conferencing was even more dramatic although the gross revenues are still relatively minute: $23.3 million in '99, rising to $62 million last year. The time spent on just audio conferencing has been astounding: 3.5 billion minutes in 1999, jumping to 5.3 billion minutes last year; with the average call both years in the 50-to 55-minute range.

Behind the growth is a U.S. Federal Securities and Exchange Commission rule that became effective in October 2000, Regulation "FD" (fair disclosure), which recognizes today's technology advances and says that any publicly held company disclosing public information cannot do it selectively. In essence, everyone is supposed to get the same information simultaneously. Even in the earlier fax-and-modem days, this was mostly a pipe dream.

"The applications for conference calls and webcasting fall into the investor relations and public relations fields -- particularly for IR because of the SEC FD Regulation," says Linda Rusnock, an AT&T teleconferencing marketing manager in its executive services division. "Since regulation became effective, we have seen increased interest in the feature available with our audio conferencing, and IR and PR have the key applications for it."

The other impetus is subtler; I think, and stems from the age-old proposition in society that information is power; and those who have the information and control the information channels retain power. The opportunity to lust for; and experience, this power trip has been democratized in the 21st century, allowing more of the masses to play in the game, and we sanitize references to it by using such aphorisms as "information is knowledge," and "knowledge is power."

I am still searching for the deeper meaning of all of this, but in the meantime, I love the mental image of the long-maligned "talking heads" becoming our primary communicators. Maybe a world that has grown so dependent on racing down the ethereal, electronic highway of Internet fame deserves such a fate?

Richard Nemec is a Los Angeles writer and communication consultant.