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May 31, 1998

Blazing the trail

Niri's 1998 conference round-up focuses on managing expectations

Doug Wilburne sees IROs as lone mavericks, out on the corporate range, over the horizon from the rest of the herd. As co-chair of the National Investor Relations Institute's 1998 conference, Wilburne naturally cottoned on to blazing the trail as a theme.

It's just three years since Wilburne, IRO at AMP Inc in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, first attended a Niri event. 'Not only was it helpful in terms of information, the networking opportunity was phenomenal,' he recalls. 'Because we're lone rangers out there in each of our corporations, there's a need to talk to someone about IR issues.'

'IROs are more than ever under the gun,' says Lou Thompson of Niri. 'In a market that's bullish on one hand but always looking for signs of weakness on the other, they have to be creative in managing expectations not just in terms of earnings, but all aspects.'

Indeed managing expectations is the focus of the conference. 'We normally think of IR as managing Wall Street's expectations,' remarks Wilburne, formerly of Bell Atlantic's IR team. 'But Wall Street is not a monolithic entity; we're managing many different audiences: media, analysts, individuals and employees.'

Wilburne's cowpoke ideals certainly don't exclude cowgirls, at least not while co-chair Martha Lindeman of Playboy Enterprises is around. In fact Monday's general session is planned around an all-female panel of portfolio managers and a speech by Playboy CEO Christie Hefner. 'This approach is reflective of Niri's membership and its vitality,' adds Wilburne.

Responding to the expanding audience demographic, the conference program is not just for 'super-large' companies. A session on crisis management, for example, features Helen Marsteller from York International - 'making sure we get the perspective of a smaller company with different issues and resources.' Panels also span the axis of experience, from brand new practitioners to seasoned veterans.

'The conference is structured so people can get full value for their investment - not only of money but time,' says Wilburne. So the most popular sessions will be repeated, including his own panel on how analysts use the internet - sell-siders and buy-siders along with Jeff Parker, founder of First Call and, more recently, web company CCBN.

For the conference finale, CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield will address the enormous changes in the news business. 'The definition of news has changed,' Greenfield says. 'There has been a radical shift from a small group of networks to a much bigger, wider smorgasbord of serious news, tabloid news, news as entertainment and entertainment as news. Then there's the coming onslaught of more individual choice through electronic smart agents and the web. Rather than news being a mass commodity, it's becoming more of an individual niche commodity.'

Saddle up

With his wild west outlook, Wilburne plans on blazing trails through more than just the issues. 'Perhaps half the value is beyond the structure of the program: meeting people and talking about common issues, as well as comparison shopping with vendors away from the hectic demands of the job.'

In other words.... party! And plenty of preparation goes into that too. Take David Geliebter, chairman of the Carson Group, polishing up his own magic act for a huge Sunday night 'good gosh a'mighty' party featuring Little Richard. Or Margo Happer of Citibank's ADR division, who last year led the New York Niri chapter to glorious victory in Georgeson's Monday night karaoke contest (not to mention the best Niri chapter award). This year, with Tiffany's Mark Aaron as president, the New York chapter is again a contender in both contests: 'Mark has taken the chapter to the next level,' says Happer, adding that the secret to their success is enthusiasm and a talent for finding the best ideas - then stealing them. 'We can't divulge any secrets, but it may involve props, a kick-line and show tunes with a New York theme.'

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