June 17, 2014 7:10 p.m. ET


Pepsi's Indra Nooyi at the Journal's CFO Network conference Monday. Paul Morse for The Wall Street Journal

As activist investors continue to drive change at the companies they target, efforts are under way to head them off at the pass.

Citing a communication gap between companies and their shareholders, new firms are cropping up to bring boards and investors closer together. The latest launches this week, pairing a Wall Street veteran and financial backer BlackRock Inc., the world's largest asset manager.

Called iiWisdom and founded by David Weil, a former mergers-and-acquisitions banker at Credit Suisse Group AG and Merrill Lynch, the firm plans to use data analytics to spot shareholder unrest before it boils over.

The goal is to reach past outspoken activists to what Mr. Weil called "the quiet majority"—money managers who rarely weigh in publicly on corporate matters but whose simmering displeasure can propel activists to victory.

Chief executives and boards, meanwhile, have expressed growing concern about distracting battles with activists. Investors such as Nelson Peltz and Carl Icahn have shown no company is immune by taking on giants like PepsiCo Inc. and Apple Inc.

"Right now, boards, they tend to hear mostly from the guys who shout the loudest," Mr. Weil said. "We're trying to give all investors the chance to be heard, and give directors the collective wisdom of their shareholders."

The efforts come as some executives are lamenting the challenge of managing companies under increasing pressure from shareholders. In comments Monday at The Wall Street Journal's CFO Network conference in Washington, PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi said U.S. investors are too fixated on short-term results.

In the U.S. "it's always about: How is the quarter looking?" she said. "I think we need to bring that balance back into the dialogue today."

A bevy of advisers are lining up to help bridge the gap between companies and their shareholders—a gap some say has contributed to the rising success of activist investors.

CamberView Partners LLC—founded in 2012 by Frank Yeary, a former M&A banker at Citigroup Inc., and Abe Friedman, a former corporate-governance chief at BlackRock—provides tailored advice to companies in the throes of, or seeking to head off, a proxy fight.

Last fall, an alliance of lawyers, board members and money managers calling itself the Shareholder-Director Exchange published a set of guidelines to facilitate meetings between investors and companies. And earlier this year, a task force assembled by the Conference Board, a research and advisory firm, published its own set of recommendations for strengthening those relationships.

The driving force behind the new ventures is the idea investors and companies often talk past each other, when they are talking at all. Smaller shareholders can struggle to get the attention of directors and management, while larger ones sometimes pull their punches, fearful of losing access, experts say.

And even the best intentions can be hampered by logistics. Companies have hundreds of institutional shareholders but only a handful of directors to meet with them. Similarly, big asset managers are invested in thousands of companies but may lack the ability to talk to all of them.

"There has been this disconnect in the way these groups are communicating," said Brian Rogers, chairman of T. Rowe Price Group Inc. and a member of the Conference Board task force. "That breeds frustration."

That frustration is playing out at the ballot box, where institutional investors are more willing than in the past to support dissidents or vote against management proposals.

T. Rowe Price, for example, backed 52% of activist board nominees between July 2009 and July 2013, according to proxy-solicitation firm D.F. King & Co. Fidelity Management & Research did so 44% of the time. Historical data is hard to come by, but experts say the trend has accelerated over the past few years, turning once-reliable management allies into potential supporters of dissidents.

Earlier this year, an activist succeeded in ousting the entire board of commercial landlord CommonWealth REIT, backed by several large institutional investors, according to people familiar with the vote. Last year, steel-parts maker Timken Co. agreed to split in two after activist Ralph Whitworth, supported by a major California pension fund, rallied widespread shareholder support for the move.

Board shake-ups may be inevitable at underperforming companies. But often, activists seize on dissatisfaction bred by more mundane gripes, which could be eased by more-regular feedback, advisers say.

Mr. Weil's iiWisdom will poll institutional investors about governance practices at individual companies and analyze the data for a fee. By quantifying investor sentiment on board diversity, management oversight and other issues, the firm hopes to give directors a push toward needed fixes.

The firm will initially poll shareholders of 50 large companies, including Coca-Cola Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Apple.

These companies will get the insights for free, though iiWisdom plans to eventually expand and charge for its reports.

"For many years, there's been a gaping hole in terms of how investors communicate with directors," said Robert C.S. Monks, a former chairman of proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. who is an investor in iiWisdom. "We're trying to fill it."

Write to Liz Hoffman at liz.hoffman@wsj.com


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