6 tips to keep your compliance officers happy

How can I work with my firm’s compliance officers?

That was the most frequent question I heard when I spoke on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read” to the CFA Society Atlanta earlier this year. At the time, I could only answer verbally and suggest that the questioners flip the perspective of my post on “7 ways Compliance can work with investment writers for their mutual success.” That’s why, in this post, I focus on how marketers and advisors can build constructive working relationships with the compliance professionals at their firms.

I’ll focus on investment marketing compliance in this post. However, if you’re a financial advisor, you can tweak my suggestions to fit your situation.

1. Create a compliance checklist

Checklists are a great tool for the writing process, as I’ve discussed in “5 proofreading tips for quarterly investment reports,” “Investment commentary numbers: How to get them right,” and Financial Blogging, which includes several checklists. They help with compliance requirements, too.

If you’ve been submitting pieces for compliance approval for a while, you probably have an idea of what triggers a negative reaction. For example:

  • Promissory language—I know you won’t guarantee results, but compliance officers are sensitive to gradations of language. List examples of what sets them off, as well as the language that they offer as solutions. Here are some examples provided by financial writer Susan Trammell: (red flag) The fund enables you to invest in high-quality convertibles vs. the fund offers the opportunity to invest in high-quality convertibles; (red flag) growth stocks have routinely outperformed value stocks over the past decade vs. growth stocks have historically outperformed value stocks over the past decade; (red flag) robo investing will transform the investment landscape vs. robo investing is likely to transform the investment landscape; (red flag) populist sentiment will hammer the FANG stocks vs. populist sentiment could put the brakes on high-flying social media companies.
  • Mentions of specific investments, especially specific products, and their performance—You may wish to avoid mentioning specific investments unless absolutely necessary. These topics typically require disclosures. Especially for mutual funds, the disclosures can be long and require quarterly updating. Instead, as Susan Trammell suggests, “find a way to help your audience understand your meaning without mentioning brands. For example, you might refer to the leading smartphone innovators, the largest online retailers, cash-strapped clean energy car manufacturers, or pioneering ride-hailing companies. Your readers will figure it out.”
  • Cherry-picking—For example, compliance doesn’t want you to discuss only your stock picks that are doing well, or to vary the periods of performance (or the benchmarks) in your quarterly performance tables to show only those that are favorable to your firm’s performance. Familiarity with the CFA Institute’s Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS®) can help you to get compliance on your side. (The CFA Institute offers an annual educational GIPS conference. The 2019 GIPS conference will be held Sept. 11–12 in Scottsdale, Arizona.)
  • Testimonials—These are forbidden to investment professionals who are regulated by the SEC. Susan Trammell suggests some workarounds, saying “You might point out that most of your new customers come from client referrals, that you have many second- and even third-generation investors, or that the average tenure of your client relationship is so many years. Just be honest with your stats, and be sure to have the data to support them!”

On the positive side, you can list the rules and language that satisfy compliance requirements. For example:

  • Nonpromissory language—Sometimes referred to as “weasel words” because they sap the strength of your statements, these phrases are necessary to avoid misleading clients. They include phrases such as “we believe,” “I think,” “it appears,” and “historically” (in phrases such as “Historically, small-cap stocks have outperformed large-cap stocks over the long run”).
  • Disclosures—Some boilerplate disclosures can be used as is, regardless of when your writing is distributed. Others, such as assets under management and performance, must be updated quarterly. You may find it useful to keep the text for unchanging disclosures in your checklist so you can simply copy-paste it. For more complex, changeable disclosures, make a note of the source you’ll contact for current information. As a complement to your checklist, you can save fixed disclosures and placeholders for period-specific data elements in your document templates.
  • Documentation—Develop a sense of the kind of facts for which you’ll need to provide backup. You may need to footnote the information. Or, it may be enough to have the source documented in case the regulators have questions. In my days on the staff of a large asset manager, I filled file cabinets with documentation. I imagine that most of this information is saved electronically these days. Make sure you know how to retrieve the information.
  • Information that helps you be accurate—As I discussed in “Investment commentary numbers: How to get them right,” when you’re not accurate, you undermine your credibility, embarrass yourself, and upset your compliance department. Your compliance officers appreciate accuracy.

Your checklist can note the guidelines for proper sourcing of exhibits. You can also remind yourself to check that you’re referring to the current quarter in your commentary. This is especially important if you start your draft by updating the previous quarter’s commentary. On a related note, observe your firm’s style guidelines—if they exist—(or create your own style guidelines).

In addition to helping you with compliance, a checklist can ease your workload. For example, if you’re a busy portfolio manager, you can ask your assistant to review your draft against the checklist. Even if you’re working alone, it’s less taxing to check a list than to try to recall the important guidelines on your own. Checklists lessen the load on your brain.

A good way to expand your list—and help your colleagues—is to ask them for their input. They may know nuances that you don’t. In addition, by sharing your checklist with them, you may save them from mistakes that will slow compliance approval of their writing.

2. Meet with a compliance officer

One way to build a partnership with your compliance officer is to schedule a meeting to discuss guidelines for the kind of pieces that you write most regularly. Do this when there is no pressing deadline or quarter-end crunch in the way. I think they’ll be willing to spend this quality time with you. Your compliance officer wants you to succeed at your job. After all, your marketing and client retention efforts help to pay their salary.

What can you discuss with them? If you’ve completed your compliance checklist, you can share it with the compliance officer (consider sending it in advance). You can tell them the rules and guidelines you seek to follow and ask them if there are others they want to include.

Learn how your compliance officers want to work with you. For example, do they prefer to see a first draft in some cases, but the final draft in others? It’s also important to ask what kind of lead time compliance needs to review your writing. In addition, are there steps you can take to make it easier to review your work and to speed up review when necessary? You can also ask them about my suggestion #3.

A colleague says:

I’m a huge proponent of building a relationship with compliance. Depending on how the firm is set up, compliance officers generally interpret the law and consult with the firm’s attorneys. Compliance officers who trust and respect you can act as an advocate. Treat them poorly and see what happens. They hold all the cards.

The same colleague suggests that you meet first with compliance, and then compile your checklist. I can see how that might be ideal. However, access to compliance isn’t always easy, especially if you’re a junior employee. There’s a lot that you can figure out on your own, especially as you see how compliance responds to your content.

3. Ask for training in marketing compliance

If you work for a large firm, your employer may have training available for you, possibly as part of its ethics training. When I was an “access person” as a contractor for a large U.S. investment manager, I had to take annual computerized training that touched on marketing topics.

If your firm lacks a prepared training program, you can still ask your compliance officer to gather the relevant employees for a discussion of compliance. Alternatively, you can suggest hiring an industry compliance consultant to come on-site to conduct a marketing compliance training session. Some can even use your firm’s own materials in their presentation, as NRS did for a colleague. It will probably help if you identify your topics of interest in advance. Your firm’s compliance professional will probably have ideas of their own.

Perhaps the trainer can show a before-and-after version of a marketing piece, explaining why changes were made to satisfy compliance. In my earlier post on marketing compliance, I suggested that compliance officers create a three-column table consisting of

  1. Example
  2. What’s wrong with the example—and why
  3. A rewritten example that works—and why

While this might be too much for a PowerPoint slide, it could be great as a reference guide that reinforces in-person training.

4. Identify useful resources

You probably don’t want to read SEC documents. However, compliance experts’ interpretations of the regulators’ words can be more useful. Some compliance consultants have newsletters and blogs that may touch on marketing issues. When you google a topic, you’ll often find reputable firms offering understandable articles on rules and regulations.

5. Treat compliance with respect

Try to work within the process that compliance prefers. If you treat compliance preferences respectfully, you’re more likely to receive cooperation when you’re in a rush or need to push back on a suggestion from a compliance professional.

Respect involves being mindful of the demands on the time of compliance professionals. As a colleague says, “They typically have dozens of items to review, so anything you can do to make it easier on them would be appreciated.” This colleague suggests, for example,

Once you get guidance on a piece, share it with your colleagues so that they can incorporate it in their own work. This saves the compliance reviewer from having to make the same comments on pieces coming from different people, and it makes the writers more efficient at the same time.

For my part, I suggest that you don’t ask for rush processing if it’s not necessary.

By the way, if you’re an investment professional or advisor feeling annoyed by compliance, a colleague says that you should remember that your “licenses and livelihoods are at stake.” The stakes are high.

6. Don’t fear compliance

Respecting compliance doesn’t mean that you should fear it.

For example, although respect is important, it doesn’t mean that you never question changes made by compliance. In my experience, sometimes compliance makes changes to improve style, rather than to improve the text’s compliance. Sometimes those are great stylistic improvements. When they’re not, you can ask, “Is this a style recommendation, not a change that’s required for compliance?”

A colleague agrees that you can negotiate changes with your firm’s compliance professionals, saying:

They normally are open to other wording. Changes they suggest may be the first or safest thing that comes to mind, but not necessarily the final answer. Work something out over the phone, not always by email. Compliance understands that you’re trying to market yourself or company and they normally want to help you do so, but in a compliant way.

That’s a good point about getting on the phone instead of relying on an email, in which nuances can be lost. It’s easier to discuss several alternatives in a live conversation. Also, a phone call may cut through the clutter in the compliance professional’s inbox. When I held a staff job, I’d sometimes walk to the compliance head’s office to make my questions harder to ignore. However, again, use this kind of “ambush” tactic with moderation. Being respectful, and even friendly, can go a long way to improve your relationship with compliance professionals.

Also, you can use the information in “Ammo for your plain-language battle with compliance” to battle against a compliance officer who prefers clunky formal language.

Another colleague urges writers to take a positive attitude toward compliance, saying:

I’ve once again been informed that “our compliance department is the most conservative in the industry”—it’s almost comical. Over and over again, I meet marketers and sales teams who believe that the securities laws are antiquated and that compliance is trying to keep them from being successful. The approach often taken is “we’ll hide it from them until the last minute and then they’ll have to approve it, or maybe we’ll get lucky since ‘they’ all say different things.”

I agree that you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to consult compliance. The results could derail your marketing.

Keep on learning!

As you evolve as a writer, you’re likely to encounter new challenges—and successes—in writing within the confines of compliance constraints. Keep on learning and documenting your lessons in your checklist.

As you learn more, you may wish to break one checklist into multiple lists to prevent it from becoming unwieldy. For example, you might create a specialized checklist for a specific kind of document.

Speaking of learning, I’d like to thank the colleagues who gave me feedback on this blog post. As I expected, they prefer anonymity, which I suspect is partly to keep them in the clear on compliance rules and rules about speaking on the record.

Manage comments on your financial blog

Some investment and wealth management firms don’t allow comments on their blogs. They think the compliance risks are too high, or the process is too time-consuming. However, it is possible to manage comments on your financial blog without too much work or expense.

The most important investments in managing your financial blog’s comments happen before your blog goes live. You must decide on your comment policy and set up your technology.

1. Decide what kind of comments to allow or delete

Some comments are sure to land your blog in hot water with the regulators and your firm’s compliance. For example, you shouldn’t allow comments that are obscene, racist, or defamatory. For compliance reasons, you probably won’t allow comments flogging a specific investment fund.

Other comments are borderline. For example, how would you respond to a post that discusses a type of asset—for example, bitcoin or other blockchain investments—that you don’t like? What about a post that vehemently disagrees with you? It’s good to anticipate these issues ahead of time. Discuss them with others at your firm, including your compliance officer.

When you develop your comment policy before opening your blog to comments, it speeds up your response. It’ll also ease your compliance officer’s concern about allowing comments. As new situations develop, it’s easy to expand your comment policy to accommodate them. I imagine that the regulators will be pleased to see a written policy.

2. Decide whether to moderate comments

The upside of moderating comments, which means that you must approve comments before they appear on your site, is that comments that you wouldn’t approve won’t ever be published.

The downside of moderating comments is that the people who write them are denied the immediate satisfaction of seeing their comments on your post. That may discourage them from commenting again.

Whether or not you moderate comments, it’s good to get comments emailed to you as soon as commenters submit them. If you’re moderating comments, this will allow you to minimize the wait that people experience before their comments appear. If you’re not moderating comments, this will let you quickly delete questionable comments.

3. Consider posting your comment guidelines for the public

Posting comment guidelines for the public can be useful. This is especially true if you think you’ll receive comments that aren’t outright spam, but that you may not wish to allow on your blog.

For example, the SEC’s rules against client testimonials mean that you will probably delete any comments that could be viewed as testimonials. A client who praises you in a comment may be puzzled, or even feel hurt, when you delete such a comment. If you share your guidelines, clients will realize that your deletion isn’t directed against them. Similarly, a person who recommends an investment with the best intentions, may feel better after reading your comment guidelines.

In “Blog comment guidelines for financial advisors: Russell Investments example,” I share one large asset manager’s guidelines.

4. Set up your technology to minimize and manage spam

If you’re a small business blogger like me, you may use WordPress as your blogging platform. There are some WordPress settings that can help. For example, look at the “Discussion” section under “Settings” on your WordPress dashboard.

There you can:

  • Require that commenters give their name and email
  • Automatically send to moderation any comment that has a number of links that you specify
  • Automatically turn off commenting after a set number of days (spammers tend to target older posts that have attracted lots of traffic)—I reluctantly implemented this change earlier this year.
  • Create a blacklist that will automatically send comments containing those words to spam (see image)
WordPress spam comment blacklist

Create a spam comment blacklist using WordPress

You can learn about more settings you may use in “10+ Best Anti-Spam Plugins for WordPress 2018.” I’d like to thank Bruce Miller of SlashYourPhoneBill.com, my colleague in the American Society of Journalists and Authors, for this link.

You should also consider installing a plug-in to fight comment spam. I use Akismet. You can find alternatives in “10+ Best Anti-Spam Plugins for WordPress 2018.” If you find one you like, please let me know.

Why the fuss about spam comments?

You may wonder why I’m making a fuss about spam comments. If you’re an investment, wealth management, or financial planning professional, you need to be concerned about compliance.

However, even people like me should seek to minimize spammy comments. Links from disreputable websites will damage the reputation of your website. Here are some posts that explain why:

Fixing compliance issues with comments on your LinkedIn Pulse posts

More financial professionals are blogging on LinkedIn Pulse, LinkedIn’s blogging platform. Sometimes this raises compliance issues that you may not know how to fix. Compliance issues for content that you post are easy to handle. But what about compliance issues with other people’s comments on your LinkedIn Pulse posts?

Compliance issues for content that you post

It’s easy to manage compliance issues directly related to the content that you post to LinkedIn Pulse—or any social media. You handle it by only posting content that you believe to be in compliance.

If you’re a registered representative affiliated with a broker-dealer, you should probably get all of your content reviewed before you post it.

If you’re a registered investment advisor (RIA), your employer may require compliance review before posting. However, many RIAs have a lot more leeway than registered reps. If there’s no formal review process, you should identify criteria for distinguishing compliant content from non-compliant content. You can also keep a list of recommended disclosures.

Compliance issues with other people’s comments

But what about other people’s comments on your LinkedIn Pulse posts? I investigated this after someone posted a spammy link in response to one of my posts on LinkedIn Pulse. Surprisingly, the LinkedIn Help person who responded to my inquiry didn’t immediately know the answer to my question.

However, eventually, I learned that you can flag and hide comments. Just click on the three dots (…) next to any comment and a dropdown menu opens. Click on “Flag and Hide” to remove the troubling comment.

If comments make you—or your compliance professionals—too nervous, then you can disable comments. I don’t recommend this unless your compliance professionals insist on it. After all, you’re posting on LinkedIn to deepen your relationships with readers. You don’t want to mistakenly give readers the impression that you don’t care about their reactions.

Managing Comments on LinkedIn Pulse gives LinkedIn’s official explanation of how to disable comments, as well as how to flag and hide comments. However, I couldn’t find the Settings icon that they refer to on my Pulse post.

If you have problems with LinkedIn, visit its Help Center. If you don’t find what you need, open a case using the contact form.

7 ways Compliance can work with investment writers for their mutual success

Compliance officers for investment management firms want their employers to market themselves successfully. After all, the lack of sales could kill the company. However, they also want their firms to stay safe from legal and regulatory threats. Marketing and compliance professionals sometimes clash. But they don’t have to. The two areas can work together so that both sides achieve their goals. I’ve observed some best practices from my years on staff—and as a freelancer—at asset management firms. Compliance officers, consider the following techniques as you seek the best possible outcomes for the companies you serve. Your firm’s investment marketing compliance and its marketing will benefit.

One of the most useful things you can do is to educate members of the marketing department. Help them to understand what’s forbidden outright, where there’s room for negotiation, and what’s indisputably acceptable. Let them know how to work most effectively with you, in terms of issues such as turnaround time and when to involve you in projects. After you teach them, you’ll have fewer headaches. Writers can’t avoid investment marketing compliance mistakes that they don’t understand.

This piece incorporates feedback from three compliance professionals who generously gave me feedback on it. A fourth pro responded to my initial draft with, “It’s perfect. Good information…great piece!!!”

1. Train employees in investment marketing compliance

If you’re a compliance officer for an investment management firm, you know the most common mistakes that marketers make. They’re things like over-promising what the firm’s investments can deliver or failing to use the proper disclosures. If your firm has the resources, create a course that trains writers in investment marketing compliance as it relates to communications. Your firm already offers some sort of compliance training so it should be simple to add a communications unit.

Firms that I’ve freelanced for have conducted training in different ways. A very large firm offered automated online training to its writers. A smaller firm simply put me on a phone call with a compliance officer.

Compliance consultant Nancy Lininger of The Consortium suggests the following:

Compliance officers should provide the writers with the outline of the 5 advertising rules under the Investment Advisers Act as a handy reference:

1. Testimonials are prohibited.

2. Past specific recommendations must include multiple disclosures.

3. Graphs, charts, formulas, or other devices must disclose limitations and difficulties with respect to its use.

4. Statements of free services must actually be free without conditions.

5. The Act contains a general anti-fraud prohibition, “which contains any untrue statement of a material fact, or which is otherwise false or misleading.”

She says, “Whatever the SEC does not like and cannot pin to a specific rule, they will peg to #5 as ‘otherwise false or misleading.’ ”

Wayne Holbrook, chief operating officer and chief compliance officer, Cornerstone Investment Partners, offered suggestions for topics to cover in training or in one-on-one discussions with writers. “I have my regular topics to check for: past specific recommendations, guarantees, sourcing of all data, proper GIPS performance disclosures and then disclose, disclose disclose. For me, whenever in doubt, add a disclosure.”

He also recommends asking writers, “Who is your audience?” He says, “From there it has been easier to train folks that different audiences have different rules,” referring to differences in how one can communicate with current clients vs. institutional investors vs. retail investors.

2. Link to regulatory resources

Written resources can help to educate your firm’s writers in best practices for investment marketing compliance. A starting point might be to provide links to relevant publications from regulators. These may include SEC publications, such as Investment Adviser Use of Social Media, or from FINRA or state securities regulators. FINRA tends to issue more explicit guidelines than the SEC. Third parties, such as law firms or compliance consultants may also publish useful resources.

Holbrook says that no one wants to read regulations. I don’t either. But sometimes you run into writers who seek back-up for your opinions. They don’t believe you without documentation. Pointing them to the regulations can help. However, my suggestion #3 may prove more informative for your writers.

3. Interpret the regulators’ rules in writing

Regulators’ publications can be difficult to interpret. After all, that’s partly why you play such an important role in your company. If you sometimes struggle to understand the regulators’ intent, imagine how much harder it is for writers to understand investment marketing compliance regulations.

As a writer, I’d like to see specific examples of what is—or is not—acceptable, with an explanation of why. You might create a table with three columns:

  1. Example
  2. What’s wrong with the example—and why
  3. A rewritten example that works—and why

You might divide your document by topic. For example, assets under management, disclosures, documentation, links to external sites, performance, or record-keeping.

I wish someone had created a document like this for me when I worked as a staff writer. However, as I learned new tips, I recorded them for the future. I became a big user of hedging terms, such as “we believe.” I squirreled away disclosures that could be updated when I couldn’t avoid mentioning a mutual fund. I also learned to note the source and date of any third-party information that I used.

Speaking of hedging, Lininger says,

Most marketers/writers do not want to use hedging words. They believe the most impact is made with bold statements such as, “You will be able to retire in style by following our advice.”  That would be promissory language that would be false and misleading.  In addition to getting you in trouble with the regulators, you have given yourself a noose to hang on in court when a client sues. I believe with the right choice of words, you can appropriately hedge (thus protecting the firm and the advisor) while still making a marketing impact. A rewrite might look like this, “Our goal is to lead you to retiring in style by balancing your stated risk/reward objectives.”

By the way, the Holbrook says, “I really liked your idea about creating a table in #3. I am going to try to create one for my firm.” That comment made my day.

4. Provide feedback—in writing and face to face

Training and written materials can’t prepare you or your firm’s writers for every situation. This makes your feedback essential. You can help your writers grasp the nuances of broad rules for investment management compliance.

When content raises compliance issues, suggest ways to rewrite it—including adding disclosures—to make it acceptable. If you delete content as too objectionable, say why.

A compliance officer who asked to remain unnamed says, “Work with writers to find a way to say, ‘yes.’ Sometimes it may require the compliance officer to answer the question of ‘Is this truly non-compliant or just something that hasn’t been done before?’ and then think through the communication rules.”

Sometimes it makes sense to meet face to face with the writers. A back-and-forth conversation can clear up misunderstandings faster than a chain of emails. Holbrook says, “I try to sit down with the writers to go over the material face to face rather than through emails. It is easier for me to tell if someone is understanding what I am correcting when we can discuss it at length.” I like his point about watching the writer’s face to see if they grasp his message.

5. Distinguish between comments on compliance vs. on style

I know some compliance officers who are fine editors and proofreaders. I’ve benefited from their feedback.

However, please be clear if what you’re suggesting is a stylistic suggestion rather than a compliance necessity. There can be legitimate differences about style.

6. Manage expectations for turnaround times

You can almost never complete your compliance review fast enough to make the writers happy. However, you can ease the tension by managing writers’ expectations about the speed of your review.

Provide guidelines about how long it will generally take you to review documents. Your guidelines may vary according to the length, timing, or complexity of the document submitted for review.

7. Tell writers how to work with you

Make your job easier by telling writers how to work better with you.

For example, on a project such as a brochure or a web page for a new product, you may wish to see a first draft so you can flag issues early on. It’s frustrating for everyone if the text gets approved all the way up the corporate hierarchy only to be shot down by compliance. An early intervention could have directed everyone’s energy more productively.

Make writers aware of back-up documentation, if any, that you’d like them to submit as part of the review process. Of course, writers also need to know what to keep to satisfy record-keeping requirements.

YOUR suggestions?

What are your suggestions for how compliance professionals and writers can work together more productively on investment marketing compliance? As the unnamed compliance professional says, “We sometimes get a bad rap as ‘Sales Killers,’ but the best understand the need to market to potential new clients (and make sales) AND the need to be compliant!” Your suggestions can help compliance professionals and writers to balance these goals.

For another perspective on this topic, read 6 tips to keep your compliance officers happy.

‘Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Are you crediting your OECD data properly?

You can’t simply grab data for use in your white papers, articles, and blog posts. You may not have the right to use as much of the information as you like, as I’ve explained in “Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion.” Assuming it’s okay to use the data, you need to give the proper credit for it. Some data providers ask for more than others, as I discovered when I looked at the website of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD data is often cited in white papers of investment and wealth management firms.

In this post, I describe some steps you can take to use OECD data according to its guidelines. Please check directly with the organization if you have questions. They’re the authority on the use of their data.

1. Check to see if you need permission

Below is what I found on the OECD website about using its data:

You can copy, download or print content for your own use, and you can also include excerpts from OECD publications, databases and multimedia products in your own documents, presentations, blogs, websites and teaching materials, provided that suitable acknowledgment of OECD as source and copyright owner is given. You should cite the Title of the material, © OECD, publication year (if available) and page number or URL (uniform resource locator) as applicable.

All requests for commercial use and translation rights should be submitted to rights@oecd.org.

This description is vague enough that I wondered if you can use OECD data in a white paper without paying a fee. After all, white papers seems like commercial use to me. I found a pretty broad definition of commercial use on TheHelpful.com. My philosophy about using copyrighted data is “When in doubt, ask for permission.” I emailed the OECD to ask if it’s okay to use its data in a white paper with attribution.

2. Work within the OECD’s constraints

Here’s the part of the reply I received from an individual in the OECD’s rights area.

Thank you for your message. There are no objections concerning the reproduction of OECD data (values) to create your own graphs/tables/charts provided that suitable acknowledgment of OECD as source and copyright owner is given. The material should be cited as follows : Based on data from OECD, title of the dataset, title of the database, friendly url, date of access

It seems as if you are free to cite some data in your text and even to create your own graphs, tables, and charts using the OECD’s data. Make sure those exhibits are truly your own. You can’t simply reproduce OECD exhibits.

Make sure you give proper credit in your exhibits based on OECD data. I’m guessing that the OECD’s preferred citation, “Based on data from OECD, title of the dataset, title of the database, friendly url, date of access,” goes into more detail than many writers commonly provide. However, you probably should have those details available anyhow to keep your firm’s compliance professionals happy.

3. Contact the OECD if you seek to reproduce materials or make commercial use

Found a great OECD graph, chart, or document that you’d like to reproduce? Play it safe by  contacting the OECD for permission. Here’s what the OECD told me about rights requests.

Should you wish to use OECD data/reproduce OECD published material for commercial purposes, please send us more information about your intended use by completing the following form:

About the OECD material you want to reproduce:
Full title:
Publication date:
Internet address (if applicable):
Exact pages / charts / data to be reproduced:
Will you translate the material? If yes, into which language?

About you:
Full address:

About your work:
Number of pages*:
Planned publication date :
Publisher’s name, address:
Print Run*:
Public Price*:
If published online:
Number of subscribers*:
Price of the subscription*:

* even if approximate

Comments (if any):


Stay safe by following the rules when you cite other people’s data! Contact the OECD if you have any questions.

Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ammo for your plain-language battle with compliance

“Our compliance officer makes us write like this.” That’s the complaint I sometimes hear when I push financial professionals to write better. If you’d like to push back, consider the point made by Joseph Kimble in Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The case for plain language in business, government, and law. Kimble is a lawyer who has taught legal writing for 30 years at Thomas Cooley Law School.

Lawyers and compliance professionals say that legal jargon is necessary to protect your firm. However, Kimble suggests that jargon may be part of the problem. How’s that? Readers often fail to understand legalese and other jargon. As Kimble says, “…this in turn will be more likely to engender disputes and litigation that never should have happened in the first place.” This makes me think of some of my pet peeves, such as the use of “mitigate.

Plain language can be a lawyer’s friend. “If anything, plain language is more precise than traditional legal and official writing because it uncovers the ambiguities and gaps and errors that traditional style, with all its excesses, tends to hide,” says Kimble. I agree.

However, even when compliance professionals let writers use plain language in the body of a communication, they may insist on technical terms in the disclosures as a form of protection for the company. Kimble’s book suggests that technical terms are a small part of legal documents—and that would presumably include documents governed by FINRA and the SEC. Those bodies may require certain information, but they don’t normally require specific wording. Rather, legalese just gets copied from old forms and models. In fact, the SEC favors plain language. Kimble mentions the SEC’s plain-English rules and Plain English Handbook as one of the “historical highlights” of the plain language movement.

If you’re looking for evidence of the benefits of plain language, 60+ pages of Kimble’s book are devoted to evidence of how plain language is “saving time and money” as well as “pleasing and persuading readers.” His book is among the sources I mention in “Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing” on the MarketingProfs blog.


Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book after mentioning it in another blog post. If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.



POLL: How do you edit your writing for Compliance?

Financial writers and compliance departments are often at odds. But the two sides must learn to get along. Nobody wins if flat writing turns off prospective clients. Or if marketers create unrealistic expectations in the minds of current or prospective clients.

Photo: winged photography

“Weasel words” help writers and compliance officers coexist. Writers can often defuse compliance officers’ anxieties about guarantees by using words and phrases such as “may,” “we believe,” and “seek to.”

Disclosures are another tool. However, long disclosures are daunting. Sometimes I’d rather delete a topic than introduce a scary disclosure. For example, I’d talk about an investment strategy without referring to the mutual fund using the strategy.

Capitulation is the path taken by some. I don’t recommend that writers always cave in to compliance officers. Caving in is easy, but it doesn’t serve your material well. Sometimes compliance officers’ suggestions are based on their editorial preferences rather than a perception of legal or regulatory risk. When you point this out, compliance professionals are often open to negotiation.

Sometimes you can call in back-up. It’s helpful if a senior person in your organization backs you up by saying, “Our business is willing to take the risk of not making changes.” I’ve also achieved good results by presenting examples of similar companies with sterling reputations using the language questioned by my compliance officer.

I’m curious to learn more about how other writers–and compliance professionals–cope. Please answer the poll asking, “What’s your favorite way to make your financial writing acceptable to compliance?” You’ll find the poll in the right-hand column of my blog.

Here are your potential answers:

  • Add disclosures
  • Cave in to every request by compliance
  • Insert “may” in sentences challenged by compliance
  • Insert “we believe” at the beginning of sentences challenged by compliance
  • Negotiate the most important points, cave in on the rest
  • Say your business is willing to accept the risks of publishing without changes
  • [Your own answer]

The Levitt test for financial risk disclosures

Do your risk disclosures pass the Levitt test?

In “A Word to Wall Street: ‘Plain English,’ Please,” former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt sets a high standard for your communications about risk.

Levitt says, “For the language of financial disclosure, we need to raise the standard from ‘potentially understandable’ to ‘impossible to be misunderstood.’ ” His article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Levitt speaks harshly about the quality of financial communications. “It’s not just that much of this stuff is difficult to understand; it is written not to be understood.”

If you’re used to producing what Levitt calls “an avalanche of impenetrable verbiage,” it will take time for you to learn how to write using plain English.

Improve your disclosures

Step 1. Assess the quality of your communications. Ask if you can realistically expect a non-specialist to understand what you’ve written. Next, test your assumption by asking a representative member of your audience to read and then explain your text in their own words.

Step 2. Download A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents, published by the SEC. It’s one of the best publications for financial writers and it’s FREE.

Step 3. Write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Start your long journey toward improving your financial disclosures. For me, it’s an ongoing challenge. There’s always room for improvement.

Blog comment guidelines for financial advisors: Russell Investments example

Financial advisors, investment managers, and wealth managers worry about allowing comments on their corporate blogs. The wrong comment could land the blogging firm in trouble with the SEC or FINRA. Russell Investments offers a good example of how to handle this issue.

I imagine that Russell’s solution has three components, although only two are visible on its Helping Advisors blog.

If you allow comments on your financial or investment blog, are you using the three tactics I describe below?

1. Moderate comments.

When you enable comment moderation on your blog, no comments are visible to the general public until someone at your company approves them. This lets you vet problematic comments.

2. Provide “comment guidelines” for readers.

Transparency pays. You set more realistic expectations when you tell people that you won’t publish all comments and you share your guidelines. Russell does this nicely in “Comment Guidelines.” Their main points include the following:

  • Russell may not respond.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Avoid investment advice.
  • Be respectful.
  • We respect your privacy.

I also like that Russell gives readers the phone number to call with client service issues.

3. Establish internal guidelines and procedures.

I’m guessing that Russell Investments has set up internal guidelines for deciding the kind of comment to squash. The firm can’t anticipate every situation, so it needs to have a process for referring questions to the appropriate decisionmaker.

The firm also needs procedures to ensure that comments are moderated in a timely and consistent manner. This may be a drag on resources. I noticed on the blog’s “Don’t let the scarcity mentality hold you back,” that a reader commented on Feb. 23, but the firm did not reply until March 1, six days later. I can’t tell if the reader’s comment was also held for six days.

What else should advisors consider if they allow blog readers to leave comments?

Guest post: “The ABCs of Creative Capital Rights”

Creative rights are complicated, but every writer and marketer needs to understand them. I’m happy that my friend, writer Wendy Cook, is letting me share her blog post on this topic.

The ABCs of Creative Capital Rights

By Wendy J. Cook

First, let me make myself perfectly clear: I’m not a lawyer. Before you act on any of my personal ruminations here, do please consult an attorney. (1)

That said, as a creator of creative capital, I think I can offer some good ideas from the front lines on frequently asked questions about its ownership, such as:

(1) How can I safely “borrow” from other people’s work?

(2) Should I protect my own work?

(3) What if I’ve hired a freelance writer?

Learning the Alphabet

Let’s begin with a brief tour of the creative lingo.

  • Creative capital is anything you’ve invented (created), that is of some relatively demonstrable value to you and/or others (capital) — whether it’s written content, artwork, a product offering or a process.
  • Copyrights protect your words.
  • Moral rights protect your artwork.
  • Trademarks protect your corporate identities, including logos, taglines and product names.
  • Patents protect your products and processes.(2)

Lawyers the world over are likely cringing at my broad strokes here, akin to using a blow torch to light a candle, but it’s how I think about it all, anyway. Now that we’re in the ballpark, let’s touch on the bases.

Borrowing From Others

No matter how convoluted, laws exist to guide us on what we communally consider fair or foul. So “Do Unto Others” remains a great starting point for drawing on other people’s creative capital. Remember your grade school teacher’s response when asked if you could have a hall pass to escape? “Of course you can,” he or she would smirk. “But may you?”

Same thing with copyrights. Just because you can reproduce an article or a picture does not mean you’re allowed to. Whenever reproducing somebody else’s creative capital (beyond brief, properly cited quotes as described below), it’s your responsibility to proactively seek copyright or moral right permissions from the author or artist — which may justifiably involve paying them for it.

An exception to this rule of thumb is if: (1) you briefly quote and properly cite somebody’s content, and (2) you’re adding substantial value of your own, versus simply repackaging somebody else’s book report.

Protecting What’s Yours

In a perfect world, everybody would respect each other’s creative fields, and you’d need never worry about someone unfairly harvesting the fruit of your labors.

Last I checked, it’s not a perfect world. If you’ve got creative capital that you want to protect against theft, here are some ideas.

Copyrights Have You Covered

Copyrights (and I believe moral rights too) are subject to an interesting characteristic. Authors automatically hold copyright to their work … at least until they choose to sell or grant it elsewhere. That’s whether or not you formally register it with the U.S. Copyright Office or display a notice on it, like: “Copyright © 2011, John Doe.”

So why bother with notices or registration? As I understand it, without these, your legal recourse is limited. For example, should someone violate your copyright when notice and/or registration are lacking, you may still be able to achieve a “cease and desist” order to prevent further offense, but you might have trouble collecting on damages done.

Thus, since it’s cheap and easy to do, go ahead and display a copyright notice on most of your work. Formal registration becomes appropriate if we’re talking book-length or for work that you highly value, but it doesn’t seem worth registering every scintillating word you share, unless you’ve got a whole lot of spare time and money you’re looking to get rid of. (If you do, I’ve got some better ideas; call me.)

Trademarks Are a Different Breed

Trademarks have very different rules from copyrights. My understanding is that you must not only formally establish registered trademarks for your logos, taglines and similar corporate identities, but you must also carefully maintain your ownership, lest it be lost through attrition. Protecting your trademarks requires at least these two important steps:

  1. Including the “®” symbol in almost all appearances of your trademarked content
  2. Regularly monitoring for and aggressively acting on any violations that occur

If you can’t demonstrate that you’ve been diligent on both of these steps, my understanding is that you can lose the ability to protect your trademark — even if you’ve gone through the bother and expense of establishing it to begin with. Ugh.

Bottom line, if it would be a serious blow to your business to lose the rights to your company name and/or particular product names, taglines or similar marks, it may be worth establishing and maintaining trademarks to protect them.

Freelance Writers and Designers

What if you’re working with a service provider to assist you with your corporate communications? As you might expect, the legal transfer of rights can be handled — or mishandled — in all sorts of ways. There are surely enough variations to provide an army of intellectual property lawyers with job security well into the next century. Since there is no universal standard that I’m aware of, whenever you work with creative alliances, it behooves you to ask how they personally handle it and to ensure that their processes work for you.

Personally, I’m fond of the KISS strategy. My practical goal is to transfer the copyrights and moral rights for client-specific projects to the client … once I get paid for doing the work. Brilliant, huh? I contracted a lawyer to help me form a legal agreement that describes this simple goal in copious legal language. Just as good fences make good neighbors, I believe that good formal agreements make for good working relationships. So far, I’m pleased to report my beliefs on that count have held true.

Even though this is one of my longer blog postings, clearly there’s plenty of remaining learning opportunities on the subject of protecting your creative capital and respecting that of others. So I’ll part with a couple of resources I’ve found handy in my own schooling:

Wendy J. Cook Communications offers writing, editing and presentation services expressly for the fee-only, passive/DFA, Registered Investment Advisor community. By focusing on this niche, Wendy helps these firms effectively communicate with their clients, prospects, media and the general public in print, social media/Web and e-newsletter forums.

(1) Lawyers who specialize in these sorts of things are often referred to as intellectual property (IP) attorneys.

(2) Patents are not addressed in this blog but seemed worth a brief mention here.