Time to work smarter, not harder. That was the theme of a symposium held earlier this month at the ASX that brought together the investor relations heads of some of Australia’s largest and best known public companies, including the Westpac Group, Brambles, NAB and Qantas.

Organised by the Australasian Investor Relations Association, the symposium agreed that IR practitioners have an important role to play, providing an external opinion while ‘inside the tent’ – as well as managing shareholder communications and expectations.

For those who missed it, here are some of the key takeaways:

Managing market expectations & what best practice look like?

With regulatory detail becoming more rigorous over the last five years, the relationship between IR, Governance and Risk Managers in relation to disclosure issues is even more critical. Best practice as defined by panelists is to have an intimate knowledge of the organisation and to focus on proactively managing expectations by providing detailed and consistent guidance with at least four updates a year (half-yearly results, AGM and a Conference). These updates provide basis to support conversations with investors.

Panelists urged the audience to consider applying risk management principles to manage volatility by consistently educating investors of the qualitative factors and detailing the context in which the business operates.  This involved proactively looking for opportunities to touch base with shareholders through conferences, media and any conversations that management was having.

Proxy voting, activism & divestment: how to avoid this happening to you!

The function of an internal IR professional is to have a solid understanding of the shareholder register. Key to this understanding is a broad knowledge of why the stocks are held, and sold, and to swiftly manage any concerns / issues shareholders may have with the Board and senior management.

The roles of the Board and organisation management need to be clearly outlined, with panelists suggesting that while management would typically engage with shareholders around the announcement cycle, it would be the Board who would meet with proxy advisers and activist shareholders outside the announcement cycle. These meetings would take the form of an agenda-based discussion to build goodwill and trust in the organisation and to address shareholder concerns and perceived shortcomings, with support from external advisers if needed.

In the course of engaging with shareholders, the organisation should act with transparency, consistency and integrity and aim to allay concerns and assure shareholders of its ability to allocate capital responsibly and deliver on its commitments to generate the expected returns.

Emerging practices in shareholder communications and engagement

Greater emphasis is being placed on IR departments to identify cost efficiencies in communicating with shareholders and the focus of this discussion was around the rise of digital channels to facilitate direct communication with shareholders, and a platform for online voting..

Despite improvements in technology, a report from ComputerShare revealed a steady decline in shareholder voting (less than five per cent) in the lead up to an AGM and even fewer (just 0.16 per cent) attending those meetings.

With panelists lamenting the cost of printing reports for shareholders and the lag in taking up the virtual experience, it was suggested that organisations needed a more flexible framework for providing updates.

This might include updating results on Twitter, using LinkedIn to disseminate thought leadership to illuminate issues that may not be usually be covered in analyst research reports (e.g. environmental, social and corporate governance) and utilising web casting for virtual meetings with offshore / out of town investors.