As the head of strategic communications firm Sharon Merrill Associates, Maureen Wolff has received more than her share of 3 a.m. phone calls from anxious CEOs and board members. And she remembers every one of them. The arson at a document storage facility. The technology company that had uncovered evidence of financial malfeasance. The board of directors under siege from activist investors (more times than she cares to recount).
We’re usually the second call – right after outside legal counsel,” says Wolff, whose Boston-based consultancy was named Acquisition International’s Most Outstanding Strategic Communications Team for 2017. “For public companies, these kinds of issues threaten reputation, credibility and valuation. These are the most important assets a company has in terms of its relationship with shareholders. I’m extremely proud of the position we have attained as a trusted advisor to our clients. And we’ve fostered many great long-term relationships in the process.”
Wolff credits the firm’s success to a ‘high-touch,’ approach that combines senior-level experience and immediate responsiveness. The team represents a range of disciplines including capital markets, corporate communications, corporate finance and journalism.
The motto is simple: client calls are answered immediately – no one goes to voicemail. And every client email is answered within one hour.
“Strategic thinking starts with empathetic listening,” says agency President David Calusdian. “Whether we are helping to steer a CEO through a crisis or giving presentation training to a podium-shy CFO, we make sure we have a deep understanding of the business and the issues involved.”
In addition to its recent AI award, during the past 32 years the firm has won many similar honors, including Best Financial Communications Campaign and Best Employee Communications. Exemplifying the firm’s focus on digital communications, Sharon Merrill Associates was recently awarded for its outstanding Twitter feed.
“It’s extremely rewarding to lead the firm whose name has become synonymous with excellence in investor relations and communications strategy,” says Wolff, who has been at the agency since inception. “We continue to innovate in all facets of our practice, from investor relations to M&A, proxy/ activist defense and crisis communications.”
The firm’s newest strategic service is called Proxy GamePlan™. It’s designed to help clients implement best-in-class, year-round shareholder engagement programs that enhance shareholder and proxy advisor relations, identify risks before they become contested proxy issues and achieve desirable proxy voting results.
“With shareholder activism still on the rise and institutional investors sharpening their focus on corporate governance issues like: board diversity, Proxy Access, environmental, sustainability and governance reporting, and Say-on-Pay, it is critical that public companies take a proactive approach to shareholder engagement,” says Calusdian. “Furthermore, recent strong public stances on governance issues from major institutional investors such as BlackRock and State Street Global Advisors reinforce the need for shareholder engagement to be based on a sophisticated understanding of shareholder focus areas and voting trends.”
Proxy GamePlan is hitting the market at the right time. According to Proxy Insight, through May 2017, institutional investors representing approximately $5.4 trillion in assets under management have implemented voting policy changes related to environmental and social resolutions.
“Our new proxy service helps companies engage with their key stakeholders in a consistent and informed manner with the goal of avoiding unwanted contested proxy situations and improving overall governance practices and relationships,” Calusdian says.
Though Sharon Merrill Associates has expanded its strategic communications services over the past several years, investor relations remains a core focus. During the past three decades, Wolff and Calusdian estimate the firm has written more than 3,000 earnings news releases and conference call scripts and 800 shareholder letters, the CEO’s seminal communication with investors each year.
Ultimately, Wolff says, the value Sharon Merrill Associates brings to the table centers on a single theme: preparedness. Whether the 3 a.m. phone call concerns a CEO transition or an impending acquisition that must be shared with employees and shareholders, effective communication sets a tone that frames the culture of the entire organization.
“Technology has changed the medium, the pace and the consumption of financial news exponentially, but it has not changed what the market is looking for – a strong, growing and reputable company with a good story,” Wolff says. “Our clients rely on us to develop the messaging that prepares them to communicate their strategy and prospects in a way that resonates with stakeholders.”