There’s one area of the business world where the use of video conferencing is giving the technology a bad name–shareholder meetings.
It seems counterintuitive that a technology purposely designed to bring people together face-to-face over any distance could be used to silence criticism, but that’s the charge currently being laid against some companies that employ video calling to create virtual-only shareholder meetings.
The concern is that wholly virtual investor meetings let board members control the questions asked of them, and hide away from protesters and disgruntled shareholders. That can be dangerous considering annual meetings are often the only time investors can directly communicate with board members and executives.
It’s why the concept has been opposed by leading experts, and the Council of Institutional Investors. And it’s a purely political outcome. There’s nothing wrong with the video calling technology, no reason why it can’t be scaled to suit any shareholder audience from dozens to hundreds of people. For the growing application of video conferencing it is a worrying trend.
The Growth of Virtual Shareholder Meetings
Virtual shareholder meetings have been with us a surprisingly long time–since the mid-90s when Bell & Howell webcast its annual meeting online, complete with emailed questions from the audience. The first real milestone in the idea’s evolution, however, was the 2000 decision made by the State of Delaware to allow entirely online shareholder meetings. As the state is the legal home of a large number of public companies its lead was followed by dozens of other states.
Since then companies such as Broadridge have been powering entirely virtual meetings for hundreds of companies. In 2015, 134 companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and SeaWorld, held their shareholder meetings entirely online.
Even an old hand like Warren Buffett, famous for his extravagant Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meetings/parties, has done away with his previous bans on recording proceedings and decided to broadcast at least part of the event by webcast. This a prime example of how video conferencing can be used to make such meetings more accessible, engaging, and empowering for everyday investors.
How the Remote Shareholder Meeting Should Be Held
As soon as a company’s bylaws–many formulated before the advent of VC–make allowance for a video calling meeting it can begin to reach out to investors. For small to medium sized businesses there are a number of advantages to be gained by going virtual.
As a start you can do away with the biggest expense: hiring a venue and catering for the crowds. Instead, each member can join from their private device, or they can gather in smaller, more informal public venues and, in effect, share a device.
Obviously, any one-way board or guest presentation can be made just as effectively over a video call as it can in person. There’s no need to even invest in state-of-the-art VC services for that level of broadcast.
And things really don’t get too cumbersome once you go further and invite voting and audience questions. Shareholder voting has been in play since Intel first achieved it in 2009. It simply requires a secured link whereby accredited shareholders can vote internet survey-style within an allotted timeframe. If you’ve got a manageable crowd-size you could even let them voice their yay or nay over the VC connection.
And fielding questions just means releasing the mute button from your audience’s remote call-in. BlueJeans and Facebook Live have already proved you can stage large-scale, interactive meetings online.
This, in turn, encourages participation from investors who may otherwise view such meetings as dull formalities, and encourages them, through ease of access if nothing else, to voice their opinions. Presuming, of course, that the company wants a full-throated response from its investors.
How to be Seen at a Virtual Shareholder Meeting
All public companies in the U.S. are required to stage shareholder meetings to conduct business such as electing board members and informing members of past activities and future plans of the company.
Each of those meetings is going to be governed by its own set of corporate bylaws, but if your meeting goes virtual you can still get yourself seen and heard by pushing for minimum audience representation rules.
Demand that live questions from the audience be displayed at least as chat messages alongside the meeting broadcast, so even if not all are addressed others can see what has been asked.
Insist on visual representation of the old in-house raised hands gesture. Even a big board of status lights, like those little green lights on your Hangouts page, could show if an audience member wants to pose a question, and would indicate crowd curiosity, even only a few are called upon.
While it’s necessary for the civil conduct of a meeting that a central chair has the ability to mute a remote audience’s microphones, a scrolling display of video conferencing guest’s chat windows would provide the opportunity for a visual protest. Perhaps an organized group could wear matching uniforms, or display screen-shared protest banners…or all attend nude?
Failing all that, you can still go the old-fashioned route and picket the building that’s hosting the boardroom’s end of the remote meeting.