DESPITE all the changes that new laws like Sarbanes-Oxley have brought to how companies are governed and managed, one thing has still not changed: directors still don’t talk to their shareholders.
Sure, boards and directors may have private meetings with high powered institutional investors on issues of corporate governance, but they almost never communicate in an informal way with rank and file shareholders and other stakeholders.
The blogging technology platform, when properly executed, provides boards and legitimate shareholders with a transparent platform to seriously engage one another on the issues. It can provide boards with a low-cost, highly effective means to establish a credible dialogue and allow directors to obtain feedback from a wider variety of shareholders with differing viewpoints.
To be sure, the concept of director bloggers is a new and dramatically different approach to board-shareholder communication. However, this is simply a case of taking an existing, proven technology and customizing it slightly for another purpose.
After carefully studying how blogs work and how the blogging community interacts, we are convinced that the technology offers a highly attractive opportunity for forward-thinking directors and boards. It enables boards to get their message out, and at the same time provide a forum for shareholders to offer informal input to their elected board representatives.
The current model is broken
In spite of all the upheavals in boardrooms recently, directors are still as inaccessible as they’ve always been. They’re largely cut off from the people they are supposed to represent. Except for the annual meeting and annual reports, shareholders rarely hear from directors.
Boards themselves seem to recognize that there is a problem. This month, the Conference Board issued a report on the future of annual meetings. It says there is frustration that annual meetings are not effective forums for discussion. “Formal annual meetings do not lend themselves to serious, informal discussion,” the report says.
The report’s key recommendations include using the Web more in shareholder communications and annual meetings, and creating “a series of alternate forums where investors and corporate management can examine critical, long-term issues.”
Similarly, in a joint National Association of Corporate Directors and Council of Institutional Investors task force report in March 2004, both sides agreed that current practice isn’t working.
“Many shareowners have been frustrated over the years by what they see as a wall between them and their elected representatives, the board of directors. They feel that they have no input into selecting director nominees, no meaningful choice in their election, and, generally, no hope of ever hearing from or exchanging views with them,” said the task force’s 24-page report (PDF 138KB)
Ultimately, though, if directors want evidence that the current model is broken, then the real test must be shareholder sentiment and awareness. And that’s where the evidence is that boards and managements still have a long way to go.
A recent telephone survey of 2,152 workers and 1,880 investors conducted between November 5 and 14, 2004 by Rasmussen Reports, an independent public opinion research firm, found that 80% of U.S. workers and 76% of employed investors had never heard of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Among working investors, defined as owning at least $5,000 in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, only 7% indicated that Sarbanes-Oxley had increased their confidence as an investor. Likewise among this group, only 7% said it had increased their confidence in the leadership of public companies.
So, despite companies spending millions of dollars and hundreds of hours meeting new Sarbanes-Oxley requirements, there is very little awareness from the public at large. This can’t be helpful to business, especially if it wants to have its voice heard on public policy.
Boards must reach out and communicate their story
Clearly, directors must accept that governance done behind closed doors is not governance seen to be done. Companies and boards will not get credit for the improvements and efforts they’ve made unless they tell people about them.
Boards need to be more accessible to shareholders — and the Internet, more especially the blogging approach to Internet communications, is the best way to achieve this.
A directors’ blog would be an inexpensive, technically simple, but highly honest way for people to interact and dialogue on the Web under a set of accepted rules. Blogging sites include features that can give corporate boards a direct link to the desktops of people who care about the company, regardless of how many shares they own.
Blogging is a more honest and inclusive way of communicating on the Web because it is difficult for any one party to dominate the discourse. Shareholders would be able to comment on Web postings by directors and other commentators. They would also be able to post comments on their own blogs and have these linked from the board’s blog. Anyone with a right to have their say as a shareholder would have an opportunity to do so.
A board blog is like an electronic Town Hall, something recommended by former SEC chair Richard Breeden in his report on WorldCom and now being implemented by the renamed MCI. Except that with a blog, the board has a perpetual online meeting. It can call together shareholders at any time to seek input or inform them of important developments at the board level. It’s a highly effective way for boards to keep shareholders informed of what they are doing at a negligible annual cost.
How board blogging would work
Board blogging is not as radical an idea as it might sound. Blogging has recently been given credibility by some high profile companies. Last week, for instance, General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz launched a blog which is little more than a sales tool, but which promises to be more. He follows the likes of Sun Microsystems’ Johnathan Swartz. And SAP AG has one of the best executive blog programs on the Web. In fact, blogging is less radical than the discussion forums which forward-thinking companies like Shell, with its Tell Shell forum, host on their sites.
Furthermore, blogging technology would help boards to more easily implement the recommendations of the joint NACD and CII task force on shareholder communication. In their report, the two organizations call for boards to improve shareholder communication on the Web by posting all “non-trivial” shareholder questions and the company’s answers on the Web to “help ensure a regular stream of information of interest to shareholders.”
With traditional websites, providing a regular stream of questions and board answers is burdensome and time consuming. That may explain why, almost a year later, none of the more than 500 companies we track, currently meets the joint task force’s best practices.
Managing comments is easy to administer
Blogging software makes the process of receiving and responding to questions and issues easy for boards to control and manage. They can establish and enforce rules of procedure for questions and comments on the blog. Boards would have the option to permit questions to be posted immediately without prescreening, or to have them go into a queue to await approval for posting.
|Blog: A website that includes a commenting system, a subscription feed, and trackback feature.
Trackback: A technology that lets one blogger attach a comment on his or her blog to a post on your blog via a link.
RSS feed: A tool for bloggers to notify subscribers and blog search and aggregation tools that their blog has new content. Now used by CNN, New York Times and IR Web Report.
By setting up the site so that only shareholders with a valid identifiable code would be able to post questions, the system would be more efficient than the current practice of receiving questions via an open email address or email form. There would be fewer misdirected questions from general traffic to the company’s website.
The commenting system would be directly owned and administered by the board, or an appointed outside intermediary, to give directors guaranteed unfiltered access to the questions from shareholders. Shareholders, in turn, would also gain greater confidence knowing that the board will hear them uncensored.
Trackbacks keep communication honest and transparent
Of course, boards may agonize at the prospect of having to exercise judgment over what comments to permit and which to exclude. And some shareholders would be skeptical of the openness of the debate if boards were seen to have total control.
However, the blogging medium offers a counterbalance to the board’s control over any debate through a technology called trackbacking. Trackbacks allow anyone with a blog, or in this case shareholders of your company who have a blog, to provide a link from a post on your site to a related post on theirs.
For example, if Calpers decides to respond to something on your board blog, it can write and post its comment on its own blog, then issue a trackback ping that would alert shareholders on the board’s blog that Calpers has a related post on its site.
Trackbacks are an insurance policy for transparency because even if you delete a trackback from your blog or refuse to post Calpers’ comments on your site, people who search the Web or follow other trackbacks are likely to find Calpers’ post anyway.
It seems, though, that boards have little to worry about when it comes to maintaining an orderly discourse via a blog. The experience thus far in the blogosphere, which is much less controlled than a board blog environment, is that there is very little unruly behavior.
This is especially so of trackback comments. It seems that when people or organizations post responses on their own sites, they tend to be more careful and considered in what they say because they are more accountable.
Noted Internet commentator and academic Clay Shirkey notes in a November 2004 essay that weblogs provide “proof that you can have broadly open discourse without suffering from hijacking by (nuisance commentators), by creating a social structure that encourages or deflects certain behaviors.”
So what would boards blog about?
Anything they want. The board blog could be used to give investors updates on the board and its committees’ activities. It could be used to solicit input from shareholders on issues. Such input would help directors to make decisions with the benefit of having some understanding of where shareholder sentiment rests.
In their joint report on shareholder communications both directors and investors agreed that some topics open for discussion would include: