THE Telegraph, one of the UK’s largest newspapers, invited its readers to put questions to Unilever (NYSE:UN) Chief Financial Officer Jean-Marc Huet on the day the global consumer products company announced its half-year results last week.
Readers could post their questions on a page set aside on Telegraph.co.uk. Huet committed to answer the questions in writing on the news organization’s website the next day.
“Your chance to quiz the money man behind Persil, PG Tips and Marmite,” read the headline. (I like Marmite, BTW.)
Comments on the Telegraph’s website are powered by the Disqus commenting system, which we also use here on IR Web Report. Readers could sign in using their Facebook or Twitter accounts, or they could post questions as “guests.”
By the time questions closed, only 5 people had contributed questions. One asked about the impact of “alternate diets” and demand from organic products on Unilever’s business. Another wanted to know if Marmite would be sold in Marks and Spencer stores overseas, while still another wanted Huet’s opinions on where growth would come from outside of the BRIC countries. Two questions had a political, anti-EU bent.
Unfortunately, the chance to ask Huet questions wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the company’s investor relations website. You had to be a Telegraph reader or a follower of the company’s Twitter account to know.
That seems like a missed opportunity for Unilever’s private shareholders to interact with Huet.
Public Relations, Social Media, Word of Foot in Mouth
The CFO’s responses were posted the following morning and ran to 543 words in total. He didn’t answer all the questions, choosing to ignore the two anti-EU ones.
At first glance, this seemed rather tech savvy for a chief bean counter. Unfortunately, it transpires that the Flickr account that Huet pointed to belongs to a PR company, one Wolfstar Consultancy, which carries the tagline “public relations, social media, word of mouth.”
It strikes me as far-fetched that as Huet sat down to type out his replies, it dawned on him to link to a couple of slides on Wolfstar’s Flickr account. Why would he even know it existed?
The lasting impression is that Huet might not have personally responded to the Telegraph’s readers after all, and if he did, he had some help from a rather clumsy PR firm.
Crowd-sourced interviews tried in US
Nonetheless, we like the idea of media websites hosting crowd-sourced Q&As. It provides a neutral venue that neither the company nor the public controls. This should encourage participation from rank-and-file shareowners.
Stepping out of the rarefied atmosphere of the corner suite and trading jabs with commoners is also good for executives. It helps them to better understand the issues that matter to investors they rarely meet in their interactions with capital markets power players. And ultimately, it generates goodwill.
Crowd-sourced Q&As were tried in the US by Seeking Alpha, a website that aggregates and distributes articles and blog posts by independent analysts, experts and journalists.
However, Seeking Alpha discontinued them because they failed to gain traction with companies, who at the time were far more skeptical of blogs and social media than they are now.
Perhaps it’s time to bring them back – without the PR or IR firms getting in the way.