FOR its annual meeting this year, the Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) is inviting investors to visit its first-ever online “shareowner forum” on a special password-protected website.
In a video message posted on the site, CEO Muhtar Kent explains the significance of the forum: “As an investor in our company, your voice is absolutely critical to our future. This website was designed to allow you to more easily share your voice and also vote your shares.”
But there’s a small problem with the CEO’s lofty sentiments about giving voice to shareowners. His words ring hollow when you realize that there’s actually no mechanism on the site for shareowners to share their “absolutely critical” viewpoints with one another.
Shareholders can submit questions to management ahead of the meeting, fill in a shareowner survey that goes to management, read management’s proxy materials, vote their shares on a site that is tilted to management’s recommendations, and watch a webcast of the meeting.
But talk to each other they can’t.
23 million Facebook fans and anyone can post
Now here’s the really confounding thing. Coke already has one of the most active and lively discussion forums on the web by way of its popular Facebook page, which at last count has more than 23 million fans.
On that page, the “house rules” state that the company wants to “encourage you to leave comments, photos, videos, and links” and that its staff “review all comments and will remove any that are inappropriate or offensive.”
Company representatives regularly patrol and participate in the Facebook page’s discussion board, where anyone can start a new discussion topic and engage with other page users and the company. Even shareholders are showing up to ask questions, although no one from the company seems to want to talk to them.
It seems that if you want to complain about the lack of cane sugar in US Coke, or want them to bring back a discontinued flavor, the company is happy to let you to do so.
But if you’re a shareholder and want to discuss the company’s pay practices or director qualifications or their use of BPA in soda cans, you can’t.
Shareowner forum poorly conceived by Broadridge
How Coke’s shareholder website qualifies as a forum by any definition escapes me. It seems like little more than a PR stunt.
It’s noteworthy, too, that the forum cannot be observed by anyone who does not have a 15-digit control number to log in, which means that prospective investors (or the SEC) have no ability to see what is — or in this case, is not — discussed in the forum.
Coke is using a poorly conceived shareholder forum product developed by Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc. (NYSE: BR), whose CEO has been lobbying SEC chair Mary Shapiro to make it mandatory for companies to offer his company’s brand of forum. We should all hope he fails.
Here’s a grainy screenshot of Coke’s forum that was filed with the SEC: