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How should social media be used in investor relations?

20/05/2014

Once upon a time, social media was considered a niche concern, the kind of thing that might occupy the hours of idle teenagers or obsessive computer-users but was of no interest to the vast majority of the population.

Things have changed, however, with platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn bringing the social web firmly into the mainstream.

Now, the growth of social media is even having an impact on investor relations (IR) teams, which are increasingly being asked to change the way they communicate with stakeholders and look into relatively informal approaches.

While there is presumably still a place for the traditional annual or quarterly report, the old-fashioned conception of this as a three-hundred page behemoth typed up document is a thing of the past.

Indeed, many analysts have criticised the tendency towards dense, opaque reports, suggesting that these can often obfuscate corporate information rather than fulfilling their apparent function of explaining information to investors and stakeholders.

How can social media help?

Of course, there is a fine line to be walked between a lack of gravitas and a friendly, engaging level of informality. IR teams have begun to turn to platforms like Twitter to communicate with stakeholders, thinking that this offers them a more immediate and engaged relationship with the people within their business.

This is probably true, but workers need to have best practice guides in mind - the relative openness of social platforms means that they have more risks, as the media can easily pick up on a careless phrase.

Furthermore, a tweet or Facebook post may not go through the same levels of intensive checking and examination as a full report would do, meaning there is a chance that inaccuracy could creep in.

The Investor Relations Society (IRS) has released a series of rough guidelines for IR workers hoping to utilise social media, although it is recommended that businesses consider their own unique positions and areas of expertise before launching a Facebook account for investors.

"Use monitoring to find out how your company, your peers and broader industry issues are already being discussed on social media. This allows you to assess: the degree of engagement that is appropriate; which platforms you should focus your efforts on; and what issues you should address on social media," the IRS claimed.

"Identifying what your peers are already doing in this space is also recommended. Knowing which social media platforms work well for your sector and which ones are unpopular will save you time, effort and expense when it comes to determining your own social media strategy. It is also useful to understand what content your peers regularly submit on social media and what response this generates – as well as understanding the style and tone of their engagement."

Many people are able to use Twitter and other social media platforms, of course, given how much traction they have gained within personal lives over the last decade.

This doesn’t mean that social media IR can be handed over to anyone, though.

Should companies freshen up their team to reflect the new IR approach?

There might be a temptation to think that someone who is used to dealing with the complexities of investor reports will have no problem with translating these skills to a digital platform.

However, the two skills are not necessarily connected - social media requires a pithier, snappier approach than the average financial quarterly release, while a degree of technical knowledge is also helpful if errors are to be avoided.

Potentially, hiring in a social media expert or at least someone with a good level of experience in using platforms such as Twitter can ensure that pitfalls are avoided.

Internal training can always be provided along these lines, as well - however, candidates looking for a job in IR who have good ideas or knowledge about the benefits offered by social media should highlight these in the interview process, as the trend is likely to get even more pronounced over the coming years.

Legal links

Even if the staff given the task of updating investors through social media are experienced both in the regulations around reporting and in technological etiquette, it is still wise to ensure they have solid links with and support from your legal team.

The regulations around social reporting are somewhat more blurry than they are when it comes to old-fashioned quarterly releases, meaning an in-house lawyer should check over any communications before they are sent out.

As mentioned above, part of the appeal of social media is its immediacy - nevertheless, careful thought should be behind each tweet or status update if IR professionals wish to avoid falling foul of the regulators.

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