06 April 2009

Beyond BizLex: Mark Story

I haven't written a column for Business Lexington in a while, so I'm very pleased that I had a chance to blend a little business, a little policy, and a little social media all in one column.

Mark Story is a Red Sox fan, which clearly demonstrates his high intelligence, wholesome values, and gregarious charisma. He's also an old pal. But since my editor at BizLex doesn't want a column about 2 pals talking baseball, I figured I'd ask him about his gig as the Director of New Media at the Securities Exchange Commission.

Mark and I had a good chat about the work the SEC does on investor education - it's not the work SEC is known for most, but it's clearly a critical facet of their work. I was grateful for the opportunity to showcase this part of their mission, and learn more about how they're using social media to get the word out. Here's our Q&A transcript.

We all know about SEC's role as an enforcer, but not as much is known about the SEC's role in Investor Education. In today's economy, shouldn't the SEC promote this as well?

Without question. Investor education is one of the main focuses of the SEC. The best defense against fraud is a well-informed investor. As the Securities and Exchange Commission, we can’t tell investors which investments to make (or not make), but we certainly offer sound, unbiased advice on how to make wise choices and avoid fraud. There is an enormous amount of investor-focused information on our at site www.sec.gov/investor.shtml.

Another investor-focused approach at the SEC is using social media. While the SEC Web site receives millions of visits each month, other social media platforms present the opportunity to talk to people not just from our Web site, but on sites that they are comfortable with and where they get information. These are platforms like podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and mobile Web sites. One of my main areas of focus is to improve the quality and quantity of investor-focused information on our Web site, but also ensure that it appears in places where people already are online.

How can enhanced investor education programs improve the economy?

Our economic downturn can be partially attributed to a lack of consumer confidence. I believe strongly that increased consumer confidence will help our economy rebound — and the best way to build up your confidence in investing in securities is to have as much information as you can — in short, to be a well- informed investor.

Educating investors in good times and bad means that they can make informed and confident decisions. There are a variety of tools on the SEC Web site that take investors through the entire process: making a financial plan, determining your risk tolerance, choosing the investment products that are right for you, picking a financial professional and finally, avoiding problems and fraud.

Mainstream or traditional media seems to be focused on crisis and scandal. How can the SEC get its Investor Education message out there if the media isn't willing to cover it right now?

The SEC is 75 years old and crises, some serious and some fleeting, come and go. What is constant is the fact that the SEC has been and will continue to be a leading voice for educating investors in the United States. I take the view that especially when there is fraud in the securities marketplace, our investor education message is more important than ever. Sure, there are only so many inches in a column, but we have not wavered from our core messages of investing wisely and avoiding fraud.

Many people think of the SEC as the stodgy, old-school haven of CEO types who take pride in the fact that they can't use a computer. Is this an accurate assessment?

Not at all. In addition to some of the most sophisticated internal tools for managing company filings and making them available for public examination (again, providing transparency that helps investors make better decisions), we have adopted technology tools that enable us to reach our stakeholders in new ways — ways that are right for them.

For example, the SEC was only the second government agency to use Twitter (a microblogging platform that enables us to send 140 character messages to our “followers”). We have three accounts: one for investors (twitter.com/SEC_Investor_Ed), one for members of the media (twitter.com/SEC_News) and even one for job seekers (twitter.com/SEC_Jobs). Since last year, we have also developed and disseminated podcasts, audio that enables users to listen to SEC new and views when it is convenient for them — while they are at the gym, driving to work, or sitting a computer. We are going to significantly ramp up our podcasts in the coming weeks. Moreover, video is a powerful tool for communicating messages, and we are in the process of building out a You Tube channel (www.youtube.com/SECViews) to communicate with market participants.

Finally, we have built a mobile Web site (m.sec.gov) so that market participants or reporters “on the go” can get the latest SEC press releases, and other information and even search our Web site. Our efforts are based upon putting the information out in a way that is convenient and timely for people who follow us.

While many government agencies are suddenly going "2.0," the SEC is one of a handful of agencies that had a full-time "new media" position in the previous Administration. Does this give you a bit of a head start over other agencies? Are they looking at the SEC for examples of success?

I would not say that we have a “head start” because there are many smart and dedicated people in other government agencies who have done some amazing work. I think that there will be many doors opened in the coming years for use of “Web 2.0” tools and government.

What can you share regarding the SEC's plans for social media in 2009 and beyond? How will it enhance the SEC's mission?

It’s really a two part answer: what is on the short-term horizon and what is over the horizon. For the short term, we will be launching a “micro site” strictly for investors in the coming weeks, one that contains much of the excellent investor education information that we produce, but that is presented in a way that makes it easier to find, understand and digest – and is targeted specifically for investors.

Second, in the near future, we will be developing the capacity to enable our stakeholders to choose an area of interest and receive email alerts when we issue information in which they have expressed an interest. For example, if you visit the SEC.gov, enter your email address and check a box that says “Investors Alerts,” whenever the SEC issues an alert for investors, you will automatically receive an email with that alert. It will be a great way to communicate directly with investors and other market participants. Look for it in the next couple of months.

As for the “over the horizon” issue, one of my main responsibilities is to keep a close eye on emerging technologies, and when appropriate, put them to good use for American taxpayers. Anyone who claims to know what the “next big thing” is probably doesn't, but 17 months ago, who predicted that Twitter would have seven million followers? Who knew that Facebook would develop 170 MILLION members? I take my responsibility seriously to monitor what is “new and improved” in the social media space, stay up-to-date and make sure that if something appears that is useful, we consider it strongly.

Is there anything I should have asked but didn't?