OLD Media Moves

Attending annual meetings

December 16, 2005

December is not the prime annual meeting and proxy season. That’s typically in March and April, when most companies hold their annual meetings. In the past, many business journalists or their newspapers would purchase one share of stock for all of the local public companies so that they could attend. But that practice has lapsed in recent years as most companies have opened the doors and let reporters into the meeting.

I’ve attended dozens of annual meetings in the past decade, and they have ranged from the company providing a special section for the journalists to sit — next to gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis, I might add — to providing the CEO and CFO for a Q&A after the meeting to being mildly surprised that a journalist would want to attend their boring meeting.

That’s why it’s surprising to see in the New York Times this morning that New Jersey-based IDT Communications barred a reporter from attending its annual meeting on Wednesday. The full story can be read here. Registration is required.

The only other time in the past decade I can remember a company barring a reporter from their annual meeting actually occurred three years ago here in North Carolina when a company wouldn’t let one of my Business Reporting students attend their meeting to collect information for her final project story for the class. Since she was merely a student, I thought maybe that’s why they wouldn’t let her in.

According to an editorial in Editor & Publisher back in 2001, Yahoo! prevented reporters from attending its annual meeting that year, and ExxonMobil wouldn’t allow reporters from gay publications to enter its annual meeting after it dropped benefits for same-sex partners. Pacific Gas & Electric also barred a reporter from an alternative publication — which was against state law since PG&E is a utility regulated by the state. A wire story from 2001 noted that Yahoo! allowed journalists to listen to the annual meeting by Web cast, but that didn’t give reporters access to those attending the meeting or to get a sense of the crowd’s mood.

“Yahoo! may still, in its hobbled state, fancy itself a cool exemplar of whatever’s left of the New Economy,” stated the E&P editorial. “But in this annual meeting season, we found much more to admire in the behavior of that archetypal Old Economy business, Boise Cascade Corp. Facing Mexican peasants, Chilean environmentalists, and American investors upset at the lumber company’s first red ink in two years, Chairman George Harad groused and growled and tried to speed the meeting to a conclusion — but he did it all in front of reporters. For that, we offer a cheery ‘Yahoo!'”

Unfortunately, allowing journalists to attend annual meetings is not part of Regulation Fair Disclosure or any other SEC law. It’s also not covered under any state Open Records Law, the mass comm law professors I’ve talked to about this issue have told me. So really, the only thing you can do if this happens to you is do what the New York Times’ reporter did — talk to people who attended the meeting to find out what was said.

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