Jeffrey Wilkins

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:40

Critical information

You can tell a lot about a company by how it talks to itself.

In-house associate communication is essential in today’s rapidly changing business environment. It’s the best way I know of to effectively deal with change, an inescapable companion that can be a company’s greatest ally if properly managed, or a mortal enemy if mishandled or ignored.

Communication is so important to Metatec that it is written into its “company constitution” of core values. Because we espouse the belief that associates take ownership in what they do and have a stake in the outcome, it follows that everyone must have ready access to information of sufficient quantity and quality to make effective decisions.

To that end, Metatec uses everything from the latest Internet technology and closed-circuit TV to the cork bulletin board and printed newsletter to keep employees informed. In addition, it’s constantly experimenting, upgrading and adding channels to its system to make it more useful and accessible.

MetaVision, Metatec’s in-house TV network, offers a mix of news, industry, company information and more. Monitors are located in common areas and corridors where associates can catch bits of information as they go about daily routines. MetaVision is highly accessible and rises above the din of the daily information flood. All Metatec press announcements appear on MetaVision at the same time they appear on the news wires.

MetaVision is the first place associates look when the company announces quarterly earnings and new product introductions. When violent storms are in the area, it keeps associates abreast of weather developments in case the company needs to take manufacturing lines down to avoid electrical spikes from power fluctuations.

And in recent weeks, MetaVision kept associates abreast of stock market fluctuations as they occurred.

The Metatec Associate Resource System, or MARS, is the interactive intranet system that includes the associate handbook, human resources paperless forms, company store ordering, help desk messages and company information. If, for example, I’m traveling to another Metatec site to meet an associate I don’t know, I can call up his or her profile on MARS to see what the person looks like and read background information. That allows me to recognize the person and establish immediate rapport.

I have also begun to experiment with using our telephone system to record two-minute “fireside chats” about the company. A recent chat dealt with “Strategy 2000,” the operating plan for the year. Associates dialed up to hear to the specifics of the plan told in my own words. Soon I’ll share new e-business initiatives with associates through this same system. I hope these chats provide a personal touch and lend new meaning to issues that might otherwise seem irrelevant or even threatening.

We also rely on old standbys, including a monthly associate news tabloid, which the company mails to the homes of associates so families feel like part of the company and understand more about what a spouse, mom or dad does at work.

Any communication, no matter how carefully crafted, however, is only talk unless it’s followed up with action. People are more apt to respond to behavioral cues and examples than they are to mission statements and slogans. That’s why nothing has yet been invented to replace the roll-up-the-shirtsleeves meeting, which is one more thing I do regularly in the never-ending pursuit of effective communication.

Jeffrey M. Wilkins (info@metatec.com) is chairman, CEO and president of Metatec International, based in Dublin.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

How to build investor trust

We hear a lot about online stock trading these days, but are only beginning to learn how electronic communication is being used by publicly-held companies as an investor relations tool.

At Metatec International, our business is global information distribution. Therefore, we must — and do — embrace technology that fosters open dialogue with investors and helps them understand our business and our markets. Recently we successfully used the Web’s chat rooms and our own site to counteract highly charged opinions about Metatec’s performance when integration of an acquired company caused a temporary negative impact on profitability.

Some organizations harbor serious concerns about putting sensitive company information online, according to a recent survey of 500 companies conducted by the National Investor Relations Association. As a high-tech company, however, Metatec’s natural grasp of digital communication creates less inherent fear of using it for public interaction.

Having a definite strategy for proactive use of electronic communication and deciding ahead of time what we can and cannot do online lowers our collective corporate anxiety. It also creates an atmosphere that allows us to communicate freely within certain limits of the law and reason, thereby creating trust and strengthening relationships with investors.

Our experience with entering Web chat rooms is a good example. Many of these investor-run chat areas became hotbeds of contention and cynicism when Metatec recently experienced a dip in profitability due to infrastructure investment and the acquisition of a former competitor, Imation Corp.’s CD-ROM business.

Our corporate communications department stepped right into the fray and clearly explained the situation from management’s perspective, inviting questions from the chat room community.

The invitation to open communication burst the negativity bubble almost immediately, and many investors not only came away with a new understanding of Metatec, but also an elevated opinion of the quality and dedication of its people. Even Metatec’s legal counsel praised the program as an example of fair and equal disclosure and a good method of impartially and equally disseminating information.

The chat room experience gave birth to the investor’s Q&A column on the Metatec Web site (www.metatec.com), one of our most successful communication programs. Investors e-mail questions to Metatec and quickly — typically within 48 hours — receive forthright, no-holds-barred answers that are posted online. Metatec also operates an investors hotline and I participate regularly in analyst conference calls that are also available on the Web.

Before implementing this more open contact program, Metatec only received occasional calls and sporadic inquiries from current and potential investors. Now, those inquires have climbed to two or three a week, most with multiple questions about everything from performance results to the implementation of new technologies in our business.

To be sure, participating in the sometimes unpredictable Internet dynamic can be a double-edged sword. Communication must hew to SEC rules, be swift, responsible and measured, and, ideally, emanate from an investor relations or communications officer.

However, we must remember that in a world in which information is increasingly decentralized and accessible, people rely less on “expert” opinion and more on direct experience. Companies meeting the possibilities and perils of broadband communication head on and with foresight stand to prosper most.

Jeffrey M. Wilkins is chairman, CEO and president of Metatec International, based in Dublin.