Paul Holmes 19 Apr 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
AutoTrader.com filed an S1 with the SEC in Q1 2000, extended the three-month regulatory quiet period to wait for better market conditions and found themselves amidst the April technology market plummet. The NASDAQ took a 349-point nosedive on April 3, 2000. Dot-com valuations sank and companies who were in the IPO-queue postponed their offerings or took themselves off the market altogether. Access Communications, in an unusually lengthy eight-month quiet period, was unable to reveal any positive numbers and site metrics while AutoTrader.com constantly updated their S1, exposing valuable corporate information to competitors. Compiling SEC documents also interfered with the day-to-day blocking and tackling of running a business. Major public relations and marketing efforts had also been restrained during the eight quiet months.
Market conditions were horrendous for dot-com companies as more technology stocks were being traded below their offering price. According to the IPO Network, a majority of the 450 IPOs in the pipeline in October 2000 were in sectors that were falling from favor including non-commodity, pure play e-commerce sites. As the market became more bearish towards dot-com IPOs, AutoTrader.com had to make the decision to either continue with their IPO or withdraw and re-file once the market recovered. AutoTrader.com went with the latter and decided to pull their pending IPO. Financial backing and strong partnerships with industry leaders including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Manheim Auctions, eBay, Cox Enterprises, Inc., ADP and Trader Publishing Inc. contributed positively to AutoTrader.com’s decision to withdraw the IPO. AutoTrader.com is a stable company that does not need to raise money to succeed. AutoTrader.com asked Access to assess, recommend and conduct damage control.
The public relations challenge was to convince media, analysts and employees that withdrawing and postponing the IPO was a strategic move and that AutoTrader.com was a company in the position to dominate the online automotive market - with or without the IPO. Access Communications not only served as AutoTrader.com’s media relations agency during the postponement of their IPO, the company became AutoTrader.com’s strategic planners and counselors for senior AutoTrader.com executives.
Through extensive research, Access found the impression of a withdrawn IPO on various audiences to be three-fold. The first perception is that the company is in financial trouble which can signify possible layoffs, closings or acquisition by another organization. Secondly, a company who pulls their IPO is not perceived as a market leader and that their business structure is unstable and will not sustain profitability and future success. Lastly, withdrawing the IPO can represent a missed opportunity to cash in on the public market altogether because the company didn’t go public when the niche was hot.
To ensure our key messages were heard and fully understood, Access analyzed the situation to see how it affected media, consumers, partners, analysts and employees, and consequently instructed AutoTrader.com to follow a specific strategy for each individual audience. The plan of action recommended was one of proactive, aggressive outreach and full disclosure.
Access proposed that Chip Perry, CEO of AutoTrader.com, conduct proactive, one-on-one conference calls with financial and industry analysts several days prior to the postponement announcement to inform them that the company was pulling their IPO as well as explain their decision. Access set up all interviews and briefings and drafted the conference call scripts, Q&As and key message points for AutoTrader.com executives. The purpose was to inform media of the news of the withdrawn IPO and that it was not going to affect the stability, viability and profitability of the company.
- Minimize potential negative coverage- change the news
- Educate and reinforce strategic decision to postpone through key corporate messages/business milestones
- Increase CEO Chip Perry’s visibility with media and analysts
- Keep employees content in current roles
- Position Access as value-added counselor
Our goal from a public relations standpoint was to become AutoTrader.com’s high-level, strategic counselor as well as educate our various audiences of multiple, positive key messages, reminding them of our viable business model, financial stability and unique category as an online automotive classifieds company. It was Access Communications’ challenge to create, own and manage audience perceptions. If AutoTrader.com took the initiative to proactively educate and explain the reasoning behind withdrawing the IPO and why it was the most obvious and necessary move for the company, the better the chance media would look favorably on AutoTrader.com’s decision.
AutoTrader.com executives walked each analyst through key messages and discussed advantages of postponing the IPO, encouraging them to respond favorably to the situation if asked by media. One day prior to the internal announcement, appropriate AutoTrader.com executives contacted key partners to discuss the news and assured them that postponing the IPO was a strategic move and through corporate key messages, convince them that the company was not another failing dot-com company.
The day of the IPO announcement, Access contacted select top-tier business and trade press. The plan was to downplay the news with proactive media outreach while focusing on the message that AutoTrader.com is a strong, stable and viable business -- postponing the IPO was a smart move and the company did not need the money from the IPO to be successful. Pre-briefed analysts and AutoTrader.com executives were on hand to field any media inquiries. A press release was also distributed from the IR firm announcing the withdrawal of the IPO as well as an email blast to additional media and analysts.
AutoTrader.com was especially worried about their employees and did not want them to think that their jobs were in jeopardy. To ensure employees of the stability of the company, Access suggested that AutoTrader.com executives call a mandatory company meeting the day prior to the public announcement to host a “fireside chat.” The executives would walk employees through the announcement and soften the news with an informal discussion – explaining the state of the market, intentions to re-file and the key messages of why AutoTrader.com is a successful business and a good place to work. Access also drafted the script, Q&As, personal letter from the CEO and the key messages for the company meeting.
Moving forward, Access has arranged a Q1 2001 media tour to reiterate AutoTrader.com’s key messages focusing on the company as a valuable player, category leader and successful business in 2001 and beyond. AutoTrader.com executives have been coached by Access to utilize the strategic IPO postponement as a message point to strengthen the company’s position in the industry as a leader. Access also recommended AutoTrader.com spokespeople proactively “volunteer” information on the IPO postponement in future media interviews, therefore allowing AutoTrader.com to make bold statements about their financial stability.
As a result of the proactive public relations outreach made by Access, media covered AutoTrader.com’s pulled IPO favorably and avoid all negative coverage. Access secured positive coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Detroit News, Washington Post, and Automotive News --90 percent of which replayed our key messages verbatim. After the IPO announcement, employees remained faithful and loyal, no employees have left AutoTrader.com and 150 new hires are expected to join the company in the coming fiscal year. Additionally, Access was able to ease the concerns of pending investors and ensure them the AutoTrader.com was indeed a stable company. Most importantly, Access had improved the agency’s credibility as a strategic counselor and partner.