Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Now hiring: Head of hedge fund PR

Hedge funds changing the way they communicate
Hedge funds changing the way they communicate

Most hedge funds have traditionally practiced a simple public relations strategy: "No comment."

But that reflexive reaction to publicity is gradually starting to change. The latest sign? More large hedge funds are hiring executives to run communications.

Recent examples include Lorie Coulombe, who joined $26 billion Davidson Kempner Capital Management as director of corporate communications in January; Kelly Howard, who was hired as senior vice president for marketing and communications for $18 billion Two Sigma Investments in February; Steven Vames, director of communications at $14.3 billion Pine River Capital Management since June; Michelle Tressel, who joined $6 billion Black River Asset Management in June as director of marketing, communications and client solutions; and Mogolodi Bond, who become $9 billion SAC Capital Advisors second in command for communications in June.

Those executives come from variety of sources, including global public relations agency Burson-Marsteller; investment firms The Clifton Group and Oak Hill Capital Partners, a private equity shop; and other financially oriented companies like electronic trading platform builder Tradeweb and investor communications-focused Broadridge.

The privilege of denying nosy journalists who request information is still usually outsourced to third party PR shops, or "strategic communications" firms such as Sard Verbinnen & Co., Abernathy MacGregor Group and Kekst & Co. And many of the larger hedge funds that have hired internal communications executives still use external firms, too, such as SAC and Pine River. Small hedge funds often can't afford or don't think they need professional help.

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Kelly M. Howard, SVP, Marketing and Communications at Two Sigma Investments
Source: Kelly M. Howard

"We're seeing an uptick among the multibillion dollar firms in full-time senior PR hires and firms are being very strategic in their use of them," said Claude Schwab, founder of online hedge fund job site and a former talent strategist for $150 billion Bridgewater Associates.

Schwab said there are always idiosyncratic reasons for such hires. But generally he cited attracting and retaining investors with clear and consistent messaging, managing the media and establishing a brand to better compete for talent.

Other reasons cited by industry professionals include the increased management of public mutual funds by hedge fund firms; new marketing rules permitted by the JOBS Act; the rise of public pensions investing in hedge funds who demand greater transparency; growing firms that need better internal communications; and greater media scrutiny, especially because of the viral nature of content on the Internet.

Quantitative investor Two Sigma, for example, has increased its profile in part to better vie for talented computer scientists and programmers against large technology companies with much higher public profiles.

"Two Sigma is unique in that it is a technology company with a scientific method-based approach to investment management," Howard said about his new role. "We look for the most talented people in a range of disciplines, including technology, and brand plays an important role in attracting top talent, influencing reputation and enhancing trust among our stakeholders."

Howard noted that Two Sigma isn't alone. "Alternative asset managers are shifting from reactive communications to a more proactive, strategic form of stakeholder engagement," he said.

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Others to hire senior communications staffers since 2012 include $26 billion Baupost Group (Diana DeSocio); $98 billion AQR Capital Management (Margaret Wyrwas); and $18 billion Highland Capital Management (Shannon Wherry).

The reasons are varied. For Baupost, it was in response to increased media attention. It was not, however, to increase publicity as the press-shy firm is closed to new investment, according to a person familiar with the situation. DeSocio, who was a senior vice president for corporate communications at MF Global from May 2007 to September 2012, declined to comment.

For AQR, the role is more public—Wyrwas is chief marketing officer in addition to the firm's media contact. AQR manages mutual funds in addition to the secretive hedge funds that made it famous. Wyrwas had been senior managing director for communications, marketing and investor relations at Knight Capital Group from June 1999 to February 2012. Wyrwas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To be fair, a small group of hedge funds have had in-house public relations staffers for years. They include Elliott Management Corp., CQS and Citadel. All three have used external PR firms to supplement their efforts.

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The number of firms using outside communications companies is also increasing.

Some 45 percent of American hedge fund firms managing $1 billion or more used a PR shop as of December, according to hedge fund news and data provider Absolute Return. That's up from 36 percent in 2012.

Four firms dominate the business. At the top is Sard Verbinnen. Clients of the firm include SAC, Eton Park Capital Management and Och-Ziff Capital Management.

Other powerhouses include ASC Advisors (recent clients include Glenview Capital Management, Farallon Capital Management, Taconic Capital Advisors); Kekst (Avenue Capital Group; Highfields Capital Management, Blue Harbour Group) and Abernathy MacGregor (Pine River, King Street Capital Management, Discovery Capital Management).

—By CNBC's Lawrence Delevingne. Follow him on Twitter @ldelevingne.