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Our Blog: The Podium

Maureen Wolff

Maureen Wolff is chief executive officer at Sharon Merrill Associates. She is a National Investor Relations Institute Fellow, Senior Roundtable Member and Honorary NIRI Boston Director. She is a trusted advisor to CEOs, CFOs and boards of directors on critical communications issues including corporate governance, shareholder activism and proxy contests, CEO succession planning and disclosure issues. mwolff@investorrelations.com
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Recent Posts

Harassment and Reputation Risk

After many months of data breach disclosures and sexual harassment scandals, of frustration about perceived pay inequality and insular boardrooms, the largest financial institutions in the world have finally had enough. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, fired the first warning shot this year, when in January he issued his annual letter to CEOs, titled “A Sense of Purpose.” In the letter, Fink asked public companies not only to deliver increasing returns but to demonstrate how they make a “positive contribution to society.” And in March, the Council of Institutional Investors (CII), which represents 130 pension funds managing more than $3.5 trillion in assets, called for corporate boards to adopt stricter guidelines for executives violating sexual harassment codes.

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Strategic Messaging, Corporate Governance, Board of Directors, Reputation Management, Investor Relations, Corporate Communications, crisis communication plan, crisis preparation, Culture risk

The Sharon Merrill Associates Approach

What makes Sharon Merrill Associates excel in the world of strategic communications?  Trust. Experience. Resilience. Passion. Vision. Perspective. Partnerships. Take a look at our story and see how we leverage these qualities to help you build value.  


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Corporate Governance, Investor Day, Crisis Communications, Analyst Day, Investor Relations, Corporate Communications, Transition Communication, Event Planning, Perception Study, crisis preparation, Employee Communications

Developing an Effective Cybersecurity Communication Plan

The Equifax data breach, which affected some 143 million  people, is just the latest high-profile incident reported by a large corporation. Verizon announced that 14 million customer accounts were exposed; Bell Canada said the data of 19 million customers was hacked; education platform Edmodo said the data of millions of its 78 million users were sold on the dark web. And Yahoo’s 2013 data breach reached epic proportions this month, when it announced all 3 billion customer accounts were hacked in that attack four years ago.

The good news -- and there is good news -- is that companies are stepping up their efforts to protect data. Ten years ago, information security was seen chiefly as an IT topic. Now, it has been elevated to the status of a strategic boardroom issue. I attend a monthly meeting of corporate board members, and at nearly every event there is discussion about cybersecurity and how to prepare – at the board level –for cyberattacks.

There’s a saying in the IT world: There are two kinds of companies, those that know they’ve been attacked, and those that don’t know they’ve been attacked. With that in mind, here are five critical things every company can do to prepare for a cyber crisis.

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Crisis Communications, Cybersecurity, crisis communication plan, cybersecurity communication plan

Five Essentials When Communicating a CEO Transition

You probably have heard your CEO or a member of the board expound on the need to have a succession communications plan. (Perhaps you have been the one doing the expounding.) And it’s true: public companies should put significant thought into how they will communicate the transition of a C-level executive or board member. But usually, that’s where the conversation ends.

More often than not, communications professionals walk away from these discussions wondering what goes into the plan. With that in mind, today we discuss the five essential elements of a successful succession communications plan.

  • Make the plan

As soon as you know your board is conducting a CEO search, create a detailed timeline that will keep your succession communications on track. Name each task with the target completion date and the name of the person or people responsible for implementation. List all the materials that are necessary for the

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Board Communications, Crisis Communications, Corporate Communications, Executive Transition

When It’s Time for a Change: Replacing a Director

Note: This is the finale in our three-part series on succession communications.

As you’ve no doubt noticed from our previous posts on communicating CEO and CFO transitions, there’s no such thing as a “standard” executive announcement. And messaging board-level succession carries additional nuances you’ll need to consider as you frame a board change in the best position for long-term success with the investment community.

To assist in that effort, here are five points to guide you in announcing a change on your board.

1. Change is good. Change carries inherent uncertainty, and investors typically frown on that. However, institutional shareholders, and shareholder activists in particular, have emphasized board refreshment in recent years as a means of improving corporategovernance. Proxy advisers Glass Lewis and ISS also view it favorably. The theory here is that more frequent board turnover opens a company to new thinking and the best possible strategic benefits in the long run. Put another way, your board either can be stagnant or growing. Approach your announcement from a confident perspective, because chances are your shareholders will welcome the addition of new viewpoints.

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Investor Relations Blog, Succession Planning, Corporate Governance, Crisis Communications, Investor Relations, Corporate Communications, Succession Communication

When It’s Time for a Change: CFO Succession

Note: This is the second in our three-part series on succession communications.

A new CEO is the highest-profile personnel announcement a company can make, but a new CFO isn’t far behind. As with any executive transition, the reasons can vary widely – from termination to mutual separation to a legitimate retirement. Regardless of the rationale, however, you’ll need to negotiate a different set of questions when communicating a CFO transition.

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Succession Planning, Crisis Communications, CFO, Corporate Communications, Executive Transition, CFO Transition, Succession Communication, Transition Communication

When It’s Time for a Change: CEO Succession

Whether it’s the longtime CEO’s retirement or the recent hire’s sudden exit, communicating the transition of the top executive is one of the most critical messaging tasks a company can undertake. So let’s discuss them both: the transitions that are well-planned, thoughtful and strategic, and those that are likely to catch investors by surprise. Here are three things to remember before your company changes CEOs.

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Strategic Messaging, Succession Planning, Investor Relations, Corporate Communications

Activists and Boards Agree on Need to Communicate

When it comes to corporate governance, board members and shareholder activists do not often agree.  But there is at least one opportunity for common ground: better communication.

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Board Communications, Shareholder Activism, Board of Directors, Crisis Communications, Shareholder Communications, Investor Relations

Crisis Communications: Preparing for the Unexpected

When you do work in crisis communications, you’re often asked to share war stories alongside other communications professionals on conference panels. The cases that are analyzed run the gamut of private and public companies, from small start-ups to large multinationals, in industries from consumer goods and high tech to pharmaceuticals and financial organizations. But there are consistent themes that typically rise from these discussions.

“Somebody’s Watching Me”

In the age of social media, somebody is watching every move that companies and their employees make. And more and more frequently, they are reporting their findings and opinions as fast as Twitter and Facebook will allow. Social media are not only accelerating the pace that information is being delivered but reshaping the entire communications landscape. In today’s crisis situation, anyone and everyone can now add their opinion into the conversation at a moment’s notice.

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Strategic Messaging, Crisis Communications, Investor Relations

The Art of Communicating an Acquisition: M&A in 2016

Global merger and acquisition activity set an all-time high last year, breaking the previous record set in 2007.  According to an EY survey in October 2015, 59% of executives planned to actively pursue acquisitions in the coming 12 months. Given that this number is significantly higher than the 40% reported in the survey a year ago, we very well could see another record-breaking year for M&A in 2016. 

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Disclosure, Strategic Messaging, Mergers & Acquisitions, Credibility, CFO, Shareholder Communications, Investor Relations, CEO, Trends, 2016

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When it's time for a change

Whether planned or sudden, it is crucial to communicate the succession of high-profile positions effectively. Download our three-part e-book and learn the best way to craft a plan for CEO, CFO and Board of Directors transitions.

Communicate a Management Transition 

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

With our new Proxy GamePlan, we create a year-round, data-driven strategic roadmap for effective shareholder engagement. Implement a best-in-class program rooted in a deep understanding of your company’s proxy practices, shareholder voting trends and peer landscape.

Learn More About  Proxy GamePlan

Find Effective IR Counsel

Whether you’re seeking external IR counsel for the first time or evaluating your current provider, you need a firm that understands your strategy, adapts to your culture and tells your story. Download our free guide on how to assess the effectiveness of an investor relations firm.

How to Assess  an IR Firm

Activism Defense

No company is immune to shareholder activism. Sharon Merrill helps boards of directors and executive management teams identify the activist red flags lurking in your shareholder base, assess your governance risks and develop an action plan to prevent, detect and neutralize any threats. Download our free white paper, “Leveraging Institutional Shareholder Relationships to Reduce Activism Risk,” and learn how the best defense against activism is a strong offense.

Download Activist Defense White Paper

Captivate your Audience

Speaking persuasively is critical in today’s competitive business environment. Effective speakers use voice techniques and body language that project authority and credibility. Download our free e-book, “A Guide to Delivering Captivating Presentations,” for insight into good -and bad- presentation habits, and learn how to improve your skills.

Become a Persuasive Speaker 

Perceptions Matter

How do you ensure that investors clearly understand your strategy, growth drivers and market position? The most effective way is through a perception study. By periodically taking the investment community’s pulse you can avoid the knowledge gaps and misperceptions that hurt valuation. Download our free whitepaper, Why Perceptions Matter, to learn more.

Why Perceptions Matter 

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