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Shareholders are getting a stronger voice 07/07/2009

Posted by Corneel Maes in Uncategorized.
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As the traditional high season of shareholders’ meetings has concluded, it looks like the season was a lot more animated that in previous years. A new trend has kicked off and communications professionals at listed companies better learn and pick up. Nowadays, shareholders want to be heard, they take the floor, as a matter of speech but also quite literally. The obviously respectful consent that until recently marked so many shareholders’ meetings has now turned into critical questioning, deliberate no-voting and in some cases it even escalated into physical violence.  Admittedly, what happened at Fortis in Brussels remains the exception to the rule, but it typically evidences how easily shareholder frustration and disappointment can ecalate into violence. Whether this is entirely attributable to the sophisticated schemes of business lawyers such as Mr. Modrikamen is very much questionable. Fact is that, in the wake of the crisis, there is a lot of underlying negative energy. It all boils down to the broken confidence in companies that until recently were considered as the most secure investments. But confidence has gone.

KBC Bank and Shell are just two examples of companies that recently experienced the impact of lacking confidence from their investor base. Shell Directors were denied their bonus as the company had not reached its 2008 target. Who would have ever thought that just 2 years ago, shareholders would vote against a bonus? They wouldn’t even dare… KBC learned a hard lesson when they missed warning their shareholders’ meeting about upcoming bad news. Two weeks after the shareholders’ meeting the news came out and Euronext saw the most spectacular share price drop in its history.

The big challenge for corporate communications and investor relations professionals is to restore confidence and that is easier said than done. The world has changed and investors have grown to be more explicit, more outspoken, more conscious and concerned about the risks of their investment. Even if the audience is very fragmented, they all have one common concern: learn how to trust again. It will take time, lots of time and efforts as serious damage has been done.

I tell you, the communications profession has to learn from experience and face up to the new reality. I see three major objectives for any senior PR and IR professional:
1) earn confidence again
2) be capable of meeting with the audiences, including institutional investors, where they meet and communicate amongst eachother: at blogs, in media article comments, on Facebook and Twitter
3) succeed in driving senior leadership into the world of social media with its  new, different communication techniques

In many perspectives, the third challenge will by far prove to be the most diffricult one. Coaching of senior management will become a major “asset” for today’s PR and IR people. Investors and other stakeholders have found their way into the new channels and the corporate world will have to follow. If we, communciations professionals, fail to lead our Senior Leadership into the new world of social media, we may eventually face a disconnect with our audiences.  Using the new media or at the very least being aware of them, is what we owe our shareholders, our customers, our employees.

Have you tweeted your company’s financial results? Do you have a web place that aggregates all relevant news about your company in one single screen? Do you have an on-line facility that allows investors to ask questions in real time? Can you easily track what is being said and written about your company, about your brands, about your performance out there on the internet? Do you really want to know? Well, I can show you how.

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