Analysis: Crisis, what crisis? ask IR experts

The Investor Relations Society is to embark on a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of IR. Is this traditionally influential discipline going through a confidence crisis?

London Stock Exchange chairman and president of the Investor Relations Society Don Cruickshank warned his audience at the industry body's conference this month that company board members are neglecting one of their most precious assets: the IR director.

This may come as quite a surprise to many corporate communications chiefs who envy the way in which the IR specialist has the ear of the finance director.

But, according to Cruickshank, the assertion of an overprivileged place for the IR director in a company is an exaggeration and the discipline is still undervalued. Furthermore, he added, there is a lack of senior corporate leaders representing the industry to champion its cause.

His answer has been to create a panel of six senior corporate figures, including FTSE 100 chief executives, who will work with IR Society board members. It is hoped this will eventually become a panel of 12 and include representatives from small to mid-cap companies as well. No details have been made available as to the first recruits on the panel.

The panel's purpose - in the words of Investor Relations Society director general Andrew Hawkins - is to 'apply peer pressure' to other company bosses in a bid to get 'more commitment to IR at board level'. It will also aim to raise industry standards and promote investor relations 'excellence'.

Hawkins claims that the panel won't be a talking shop but will promote investor relations in a more active, visible way, for example by speaking at industry events.

'No one is championing investor relations, which is crazy as it has so much bearing on a company's performance,' he explains.

Hawkins believes that the time is right to beat the IR drum, in part due to the damage done to the sector by corporate scandals such as Enron.

He said: 'Shareholder communications is under the spotlight at the moment for all the wrong reasons.

'But there's a lot of good practice out there - the IR role needs to be fortified and we need to win the hearts and minds of the public.'

But does this signal a crisis of confidence? When asked directly the answer is an overwhelming 'no'.

'There is no crisis,' states Simon Hudson, director of IR consultancy City Insights. 'IR's place in the corporate hierarchy is more secure and safe than ever. As for the timing, the crises in America were company-specific and came from the chief executive downwards; they were not caused by the IR department telling porkies.'

But even Hudson, who is loathe to use the word crisis, suggests that the sector is at the very least jittery due to the economic climate.

'A common reaction from companies in a downturn is to put on the tin hats and not venture out, but in times like this they need to keep talking to investors,' he explains.

Hudson disputes Hawkin's view that some companies see IR simply 'as a means to sell a company story.' He argues: 'I think it's great that Don wants to stand up and say IR is not all fluff and spin, but if I wanted to plant a message I'd use traditional PR and involve the media, IR is about talking face to face with investors.'

Hudson's views are echoed by Mackinson Cowell founding partner Bob Cowell, who refutes the assertion of a crisis in the sector by saying he's 'at a bit of a loss' as to why the IR Society believes it is necessary to fight IR's case in boardrooms.

Another IR veteran says: 'CEOs are obliged to keep the market informed as to their performance,' he says. 'Therefore investor relations will always be valued, so suddenly starting a campaign like this is bizarre.'

And managing director of the corporate arm of information and technology supplier Thomson Financial Albert Lojko agrees.

'To say that this is a response to the US scandals sounds like a knee-jerk reaction and oversimplifying the matter. I think that, by and large, the importance of IR is embedded at board level in most companies, especially the bigger FTSE 100 ones.'

But for EMI IR vice president and IR Society board member Siobhan Turner the reason for creating the panel and raising awareness of the importance of IR is less about tackling companies failures to appreciate the discipline and more about the second part of the panel's brief: to champion best practice.

According to Turner, the scheme is a result of the IR Society's efforts to become more 'strategic thinking and responsive' to industry issues.

In particular, she talks of the need to encourage more two-way dialogue between companies and their investors as an issue that the panel can promote.

'Corporate governance is at the front of investors' minds,' says Turner.

'There's been a lot of negative press ... so investors need to be able to raise issues with companies and know that they'll be considered.'

While those involved in IR have a gut instinct to avoid the word crisis, there's no doubt that economic downturn and scandals such as Enron have taken their toll on confidence in the sector.

OPINION - THE PRESIDENT'S VIEW

Don Cruickshank, London Stock Exchange chairman and IR Society president 'There is now a developed body for - and of - senior IR professionals in the UK, and we have seen its growth through the IR Society, but despite this, and in the face of strong pressure from investors to raise the bar in IR, the Society still lacks senior representatives.

'The Society is therefore bringing together a group of senior corporate leaders to form an advisory panel to represent both small and large companies.

'They will work with the Society board and help raise the profile of investor relations and increase the importance that companies attach to it and champion the case for IR within the corporate community.

'We should, with the right people on board, get a much higher profile for IR and more publicity benefiting both the society and industry.

'We are also looking for the panel to advise on the importance of the UK IR Society model within the context of the creation of a single European capital market.

'I believe that the Society and companies listed on the stock exchanges would greatly benefit from this wider European support.'

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