Embracing change and rewriting the alternative investment PR narrative

Financial services public relations is a business where specialists have come and gone, but over more than two decades Armel Leslie has made inroads in telling his clients stories no matter the trajectory of the investment markets.

Recently, Leslie signed up for another tour of duty with his former colleague Tom Walek who founded the firm where he started his career, Walek & Associates. While the hedge fund industry and financial technology were emerging trends in 1999, Leslie was quick to hop on the industry’s growth story.

At Walek, he rose to the level of partner just as it was sold to integrated PR/marketing agency Peppercomm in 2013, where he became senior director of capital markets. Following Peppercomm, he became a senior vice president at Sloan & Company, where he worked with financial services clients.

Alternatives Watch recently caught up with Leslie as he joined Walek’s new firm Peaks Strategies as partner. He reflected on the how the alternative investment space has evolved and how public relations firms are adapting.

Based in New York, Peaks Strategies was founded in 2016 to specialize in strategic communications for public and private companies in capital markets, alternative and traditional asset management, fintech, and financial and professional services.

AW: The alternative investment industry has changed drastically over the course of your career, as have the ways of communicating with a broad media audience. What have been the main touchpoints as you have seen them and how have they impacted public relations firms?

Leslie: Looking back on the landscape from when I joined Tom Walek in the late 90’s versus today, the difference is seismic and would have been hard to predict.

We were pioneers in championing that hedge funds should think about their brand and embrace proactive PR in what was initially a “no comment” and defensive culture. Over time, we changed that mindset and built a track-record demonstrating value in supporting IR, sales and marketing functions, which transformed PR for the alternatives industry.

One of the biggest inflection points was the passing of the JOBS Act in 2012 which gave fund managers a lot more freedom to ‘advertise’ more freely. That opened the spigot in terms of more media dialogue, speaking engagements and the opening of websites beyond password protected investor portals. That provided a pivotal moment for PR firms to take advantage of new and needed support with content marketing and web design and oversight, as well as a more voracious appetite for generating publicity in what was by then a much more crowded field.

However, the most pronounced shift was not driven by rules, regulations or legal counsel, but by the stark realization that alternatives funds weren’t competing just against their peers — but against traditional asset managers as well — who encroached on the space through acquisitions, organic expansion and by launching liquid alternatives which brought daily liquidity and new fee structures to market.

At that critical juncture, our mantra and fist pounding about brand building and differentiation was cemented as the industry was now benchmarking against behemoth asset managers, who had the marketing resources and distribution to outmuscle them.

We recognized the melding of traditional and alternative asset management early on and worked to position clients as such by not pigeonholing them as hedge funds. Today, that reality has morphed into active versus passive asset management with even less of an emphasis on traditional versus alternative.

AW: What dominates some of the public relations discussions with your clients these days — website development, social media, press release distribution, etc?

Leslie: The need for smart and impactful content and optimal tools to drive and amplify that content through various channels to reach core target markets. One key shift in communications is that a personal or firm-wide brand now has the keys to self-publish and no longer needs to rely solely on third party publication and distribution.

As highlighted by this 2019 study by Greenwich Associates: Investing in the Digital Age: Media’s Role in the Institutional Investor Engagement Journey, allocators are increasingly looking to asset managers for market research and thought leadership, and their preferred and primary source is social media channels, before relying on financial publications. So, the opportunity to differentiate, capture share of voice and harness and cross-purpose all owned and earned channels is the name of today’s PR game.

Drilling down from that macro backdrop, today’s most top of mind discussions revolve around positioning clients within the increasingly important ESG sphere. The industry no longer has the luxury of saying “we don’t do ESG” if they hope to attract and retain capital and talent. With $30 trillion in ESG-oriented assets globally, managers need to stay competitive and learn how to clearly communicate their ESG capabilities, procedures, and strategies to build credibility and avoid accusations of “greenwashing.” We are currently conducting audits to see how firms’ stand against their peers to help benchmark and create a positioning platform moving forward.

Within the current hyper-sensitive reality of real-time issues to address – such as systemic racism and climate change — there is a lot more to think about than just managing money — and public perception can make or break a business more acutely than performance.

AW: What are investment firms missing out on most often when it comes to telling their story these days?

Leslie: Most are missing out on creative and succinct ways of communicating through increasingly popular mediums, such as video.

The opportunities to slice and dice content into multiple touchpoints is essential to paint a narrative and while there is still validity and appetite for dense whitepapers, packaging that up into teasers are as crucial as the underlying research and thesis.

Playing into the rapidly depleting attention span of all stakeholders (most pronounced among Millennials), driven in part by the sound-bite, social media landscape is critical and firms need to be attune to the need to cut through the noise and clutter of the information overload we are all deluged with.

While longer-form in nature and design, podcasts are also a medium that is gaining in popularity across financial services and the barriers to entry (technology-wise) in creating a firm-sponsored podcast series are minimal.

AW: In your opinion, what will be the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the alternative investment industry and what about the ‘new’ normal do you suspect will stay?

Leslie: I think the long-term effects will be overall accretive to this innovative, solutions driven and performance-based industry. In terms of the new normal from a PR perspective, the industry will certainly have to come to terms with and be set up for a more virtual approach to media relations, as face-to-face meetings, media tours and briefings, and in-studio broadcast appearances won’t get back to the high watermark for the foreseeable future.

Beyond the technology, online video training and preparedness for spokespersons is essential both for broadcast and other media transactions that no longer allow the full benefits of being able to respond to body language and build the same rapport that face-to-face meetings can foster. Virtual presentation training is ultimately helpful across business lines as more investor roadshows conferences and meetings are now conducted in this fashion.

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