A first-time investor relations professor at the College of Communication, Brian Norris is a seasoned finance executive with more than 20 years of experience. He has worked in operational finance, corporate development, and investor relations. His good reputation precedes him in Boston’s investor relations world and beyond.
Prachi Kabir: How did you begin your journey with IR?
Brian Norris: How I got into the field of investor relations is actually a fairly circuitous path. It was a very unusual path for me. I studied finance in undergraduate, and I got an MBA from a local business school, and started my professional career very much aspiring to become a chief financial officer, and probably spent the first 10 years of my career in multiple finance related positions.
I stumbled [upon] this job posting that went up in the lunchroom for an investor relations manager. I had no idea what that meant, but I took the job posting off of this board sitting in a lunchroom.
I went to go see my chief financial officer at the time, and I said, “This sounds like an interesting connection between my love of finance and communications, and my academic background in finance. Can you tell me more about the role?” And he spent some time with me, and at the end I said, “You know, I’d really love an opportunity to take this on. This sounds like a really interesting challenge.” And he gave me that chance.
PK: As you have been in this profession for 20 plus years, how would you say investor relations has evolved?
BN: It has changed in a lot of really important ways! Probably the most significant change was when the U.S. government passed a rule called Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD), and that really leveled the playing field. Prior to that law being passed by The Securities and Exchange Commision, there was a lot of selective disclosure of information on Wall Street, back in 2000, 2001. All that changed with the passing of Reg FD. That was probably the single most significant change.
Another important change was the advent of financial communications on the internet. Prior to the internet coming along, all information was passed along through business wires, phone calls, and meetings on the investor circuit on Wall Street. The internet frankly revolutionized the way that companies communicate with shareholders, and vice versa.
PK: Why do you think it is important for a communications major to understand investor relations?
BN: For any company, when they think about their communications strategy, they need to think about all the different constituents that they need to communicate to. So who do companies communicate to? They communicate to the public, employees, partners, the media, but a very important constituent is the shareholder base, as well; hence, Wall Street.
It is very important that companies think about messaging across all of these different stakeholders and to have a very consistent set of messages. They could be tailored slightly differently for the different constituents—like an employee, a customer, or a shareholder.
[…] I think failure to involve Wall Street communications in the global communications strategy of a company is a real disservice to the company and its shareholders.
PK: As part of your class, you teach something called “life lessons” during class. What do you think are the perks of knowing investor relations in a day-to-day life?
BN: Many of the things that we learn in corporate investor relations and communications are also applicable to your personal life, so knowing a little bit about that professionally will go a long way in helping you understand the different elements of Wall Street, different elements of communicating, and how companies communicate to you as a shareholder.
When you are trying to personally learn more about a company, you would find that communicating through and with the investor relations channel of a company is very beneficial to you as an individual, so those are certainly one of the life lessons that I have tried to share in the classroom itself, among other things.
PK: What do you think has been a challenging aspect of teaching investor relations to COM majors who might not have an affinity toward numbers or math?
BN: To understand the craft of investor relations, you need to understand that it really is a confluence of a number of different disciplines. When I say that, I mean it is an intersection of sales, marketing, securities law, and finance. All four of those elements are very important.
[For] the question you’re asking regarding the financial aspect: I think it is important for a professional communicator, [which investor relations experts are], to be able to understand thoroughly what it is they are trying to communicate in this case to Wall Street. There is no way to properly communicate to a financial analyst on Wall Street unless you have some basic understanding of financial statements. We do not have to go overboard, but you need to—as a communicator—be sensitive to what’s important to an investor.
PK: Is teaching IR more challenging when it comes to international students?
BN: You know, I have not really seen it that way. I think the students that I am fortunate enough to have in my class all demonstrate a real interest in the subject, so I don’t see that as being differentiated as a domestic student or international.
What I am committed to as a professor at the school is the success of the students. So if the student shows commitment, whether they are from here in the U.S. or abroad, I really don’t care, and I really don’t see any difference there. I am committed to that student’s success.
PK: You’ve had some really good guest speakers, such as Scott Landers (CEO of Monotype Imaging) and Maureen Wolff (CEO of Sharon Merrill Associates). I want to know: What is the thought process that goes into selecting a particular guest speaker?
BN: It’s probably a little bit helpful to bring some other perspectives into the classroom, other than just my own, even though I have been doing this for a long time. There are a lot of other people that have great experiences to share.
We have been fortunate to have CEOs and IR practitioners here, and we will have others that can share a lot of different perspectives. So hearing from a CEO why the IR function is important is an eye-opening experience for our students, and frankly, that is exactly how it was received.
PK: What do you think came as a surprise while teaching this class?
BN: The one surprise is just how excited some of the students really seem to be about the craft. If we went back in time to the very first week in class, I don’t think a lot of people knew what investor relations was, and now, 10 weeks later, I have people that are actively asking for my assistance to help them land careers in IR.
I was a little surprised by the level of excitement in such a short period of time for a craft that people did not really know much about and are frankly being exposed to for the first time very late in their education process. So I think it’s very exciting that some eyes are being open to a craft.
PK: That’s great! Last question now. What has been your best experience as an IR professor at BU?
BN: I just love being able to share whatever perspectives that I have developed over two decades in the business. Why take these practices and experiences and do nothing with them? I thoroughly enjoy the act of sharing and passing these experiences on to younger people in hopes that they might become a little bit more interested in the field and might be a little bit more excited about the craft.
It’s not such a scary profession. It really isn’t. It is very exciting, so the really rewarding thing for me is just the act of sharing those experiences. I could be doing anything on a Tuesday night, but I love coming in here on Tuesday nights and sharing these experiences with students at BU.
Prachi Kabir, Staff Writer
Prachi is a Communication Studies graduate student from India who believes good research is more exhilarating than a good read. Needless to say, she is an avid reader, wannabe wine aficionado, professional daydreamer and hopeful to make a career in PR. Apart from reading, she loves sleeping and eating in no particular order.