INTERNET communications played a central role in the election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States – and it is expected to be just as important in how the new administration will communicate with the American public.
The example set by the new administration will put pressure on other public institutions, including public companies, to follow Obama’s lead to harness technology as a way to provide more transparency and encourage stakeholder engagement. If the US President can do it, why not the CEO or Board of Directors of a large multinational corporation?
So what can we expect from the new administration? An AFP article quotes Macon Phillips, director of New Media for Obama’s transition team, as saying the team has been “looking at government, how we can open it up, how we can engage citizens.”
Of course, there were many clues in both how the Obama campaign was conducted online and in their platform materials. Take the following headline statement from their campaign literature on technology:
“We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us. We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.”
The new administration has promised to use web communications technology in a number of new ways, including:
- Cabinet officials will be required to have periodic national broadband townhall meetings to discuss issues before their agencies.
- The White House will post all non-emergency bills from Congress on its website for public comment for five days before the president will sign them.
- Obama will amend executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public.
- A new “Contracts and Influence” database will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them.
The Obama government also plans to appoint the first government Chief Technology Officer and push initiatives to make America lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access. Importantly, Obama has pledged to make the US a signatory to, and have the Senate ratify, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This would obligate the government to ensure legislation is in place to make all websites accessible to disabled users.
Of course, election promises and reality often diverge. But there is little reason to believe that the Obama government will not follow through on its technology and communications commitments. One reason is that the new administration owes much of its success to the web. During the campaign, millions of citizens, many of them young and previously unengaged, were drawn to Obama and his message via online video, blogging and social networking. The campaign raised $641 million from 3.2 million donors, half of which made online donations of $200 or less.
More to the point, immediately after winning the election, the Obama team set up a new website for the President-elect at www.change.gov. The site incorporated a blog and invited Americans to submit their ideas to the new government. Clearly, citizen engagement and social media will be an important part of how the new government will operate.
Impact on corporate executives and boards
So how will this new culture of web-based outreach and engagement impact corporations and their boards? Perhaps the most important consequence is that companies now have one less excuse for not engaging their shareholders online, especially retail investors.
The current US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has one of the most pro-technology chairmen in the agency’s 75-year history. Christopher Cox, a republican whose term ends on January 20, has championed technology and the web. Under his watch, companies have been given the option to deliver shareholder materials online by default, shareholder forums are more feasible, and new guidance from the commission allows some companies to use their websites, or blogs, as standalone sources of disclosure.
Cox has also been a strong proponent of XBRL, which the SEC has made mandatory starting with 500 of the largest companies in 2009. Given the Obama administration’s technology agenda, it’s highly unlikely that any new SEC chairman will reverse what Cox has begun.
The fact is all of the regulatory conditions are already in place for companies to open up their communications with shareholders on the web. What has been missing to date is an impetus to do so.
Now with a sea change in Washington and a new, more technology savvy crew in the White House, US public companies will either fall in line or find themselves increasingly isolated and perceived as part of a bygone order.
A version of this article first appeared in November in Online IR Trends Quarterly, IR Web Report’s journal for investor relations website managers.