The week in corporate malfeasance

The voice of the paparazzi

Paparazzi

The paparzzi used to focus their lenses on the likes of Brad and Angelina for the vicarious thrill of the masses. But now they and their keyboatd wielding colleagues play a critical role in corporate governance and marketing.

Way back in 1970, economist Albert Hirschman suggested consumers and investors have only two choices when they believe a company is doing them wrong: they can "exit" (end the relationship) or they can "voice" (complain until the company changes).

As a practical matter, exit doesn't accomplish much any more. Organized product boycotts are rare. And when Hirschman wrote his paper, the turnover of an average managed mutual fund was 17% a year; by 2000, it was 91%, meaning funds sold nearly all of their holdings every year. Many funds, in fact, have turnover ratios of more than 100%, holding the typical company share for less than a year.

That leaves voice. Again, when Hirschman wrote his paper, voice belonged to a privileged few. One consumer's voice tended to get lost in the  clamor of the marketplace. Even if consumers or investors ganged up on a company, their voices could be drowned out by a barrage of advertising and misdirection.

Today, everyone is a publisher. Blogs and tweets have outsized influence. According to one survey, 90% of consumers say their purchasing decisions are influenced by online reviews.

And media of all sorts amplify the voice of governance experts who used to toil in obscurity. Just this week, the media reported Walmart's board was criticized by an institutional investor group for being too chummy with management. Last week, the media reported Chipotle's sharowners overwhelmingly voted against an executive compensation plan they considered overly generous.

None of these expressions of "voice" is binding. But when the mainstream media report them, they take on added urgency. Corporate America is not governed by the media, but it is highly influenced by it. When I attended AT&T board meetings, I was far more likely to hear "how will the Journal react to this," than "what will the SEC say."

And then this story on the front page of today's New York Times puts a human face on GM's ignition switch problems, turning the emotional level of the discussion way up. 

Law and finance professor Louis Lowenstein termed all this "the voice of the paparazzi," way back in 1999 before the Internet changed everything. Ironically, his son, Roger Lowenstein, is one of the most highly respected of those voices.

"The new voice in town is the raucous, incessant beat of the analysts and the media, and boards and CEOs now pay heed," he wrote. "With good numbers on which to base detailed, credible reports and stories, those oh so rude paparazzi have an impact that puts ministries of finance and cronyism to shame."

That new voice now has more power than Prof. Lowenstein could ever have imagined.

 

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