Activist Investors Increasingly Use Social Media to Further Their Causes

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By Kristyn Hyland

Oct. 30 — “Activist shareholders are increasingly using social media and if you're not prepared, you should be,” according to an in-house counsel.

“By the time a social media campaign strikes, it's too late,” said Kevin Maxwell, assistant general counsel for securities and M&A with Mueller Water Products, Inc. “This is a real time impact.”

Maxwell spoke on a panel Oct. 30 at the Association of Corporate Counsel's Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Social Media as an Activist Tool

“The first known use of social media for activist purposes was in 2007,” said Maxwell.

According to Maxwell, Eric Jackson, who at the time owned 96 shares of Yahoo!, took to YouTube that year and posted a video of his “Plan B for Yahoo!,” calling for a new chief executive officer, board replacements and accelerated stock buybacks, among other demands.

Jackson's video went viral and soon his coalition grew to 150 members holding 4.2 million shares of Yahoo! stock. Within six months, the Yahoo! CEO had resigned after poor voting results at the company's annual meeting, said Maxwell. Since that time, it has not been uncommon for more well-known activist investors to use social media to further their cause.

Icahn Joins Twitter

For example, well-known activist investor Carl Icahn joined Twitter in June 2013.

Icahn's first tweets were in opposition to a proposed management buyout at Dell, said Maxwell.

In August 2013, Icahn demanded share buybacks and dividend distribution from Apple via Twitter. Within three minutes of Icahn's tweet, Apple's stock spiked, according to Maxwell.

Most recently, in March, Icahn tweeted about the purported incompetence of eBay's CEO. eBay ended up adding an independent director and spinning off PayPal, as Icahn had urged.

Icahn now has almost 190,000 followers on Twitter.

Using Multiple Social Media Outlets

In another ongoing case of an activist investor utilizing social media, Wintergreen Advisors, the investment manager of Wintergreen Funds, has launched a multi-faceted social media campaign this year against Coca-Cola Company's equity pay plan, according to Maxwell.

Wintergreen has made its discontent known via posts on Twitter, YouTube and other platforms, said Maxwell. In July, Wintergreen launched a website, fixbigsoda.com, to detail their plan on how Coke can improve its governance practices.

Panelist Mark Rogers, associate general counsel and assistant secretary with Insight Enterprises, Inc., emphasized that companies “should monitor any social media communications” that mention the company.

The panel, which also included Harva Dockery, partner with Norton Rose Fulbirght LLP, was entitled “Social Media and Securities Laws: Collision Course or Smooth Sailing?”

The ACC's Annual Meeting runs from Oct. 28-31.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kristyn Hyland in New Orleans at khyland@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ryan Tuck at mailto:sdoyle@bna.com