Wednesday, May 16, 2012

One Tweet Over the Line - Social Media, Investor Relations and Common Sense

Occasionally a sacrifice must be made to the gods of new technology. That is why innovation is sometimes referred to as “the bleeding edge”.  The latest cautionary tale about the brave new world of social media just happens to be about Gene Morphis, the now former CFO of Francesca’s Holdings, a public company, who used Facebook and Twitter to make comments about company and board activities and got fired for his comments.
We have been living with social media for a number of years now, so perhaps it’s not exactly leading edge, but in areas touching upon investor relations, companies have been late adopters, so there is not a lot of precedence to guide people. However, there are two touchstones people should use when putting out blogs, tweets and other social media postings.
First, consider what the Securities and Exchange Commission has said on the subject. To put it plainly, the SEC has stated that that statements made by a company, or anyone who could be considered as speaking for the company, must comply with all of the requirements and restrictions of the securities laws. That means that you must be truthful, complete and not misleading in any statements you make. You also have to comply with the requirements of Reg. FD, and if your blog or twitter feed doesn’t qualify as a broad based distribution method (and most probably do not) then you cannot use it to release material non-public information.
The second item to take into consideration in making social media comments about your company is plain old common sense. One way to test what you want to put in a blog or twitter post is to ask yourself, “Is this something I would be comfortable saying to a room full of equity analysts?” If not, then don’t put it out on the Internet where everyone can see it. This is not rocket science, but there seems to be a switch that gets flipped when some people get on the computer and start typing. People seem to think they can say anything and not be held to the consequences. Who can forget John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods making derogatory postings on a discussion board about a company Whole Foods later acquired? (As an aside, Mackey appears to have learned from his missteps as he now has a blog on the Whole Foods web site which gives you good insight into the way he thinks about his business.)
In the case in question, there are a number of statements Mr. Morphis made that are just plain dumb, and probably were reason enough to get him fired by a CEO and Board of Directors lacking in a sense of humor. One example was on March 6th when he said, “Dinner w/Board tonite. Used to be fun. Now one must be on guard every second." But the post that, in my view, he deserves to get fired for was made the following day when he wrote, "Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board." Given that the quarterly earnings were not released until March 13, it appears to me that he was making a comment on the upcoming quarterly earnings.  It violates both of the considerations I discuss above: it appears to disclose material non-public information in a selective manner, and it is something that even the most junior investor relations officer would have the common sense not to say. It is clearly, to misquote an old Brewer & Shipley song, one tweet over the line.

1 comment:

Jeffluth said...

Great post, John. Incredible lack of judgment and professionalism on the part of this former CFO. Suggest public companies leave social media to their marketing folks - and keep those people far away from the board room. Either that, or take the opposite approach and allow/encourage all company managers to conduct a full frontal attack on corporate incompetence, and let the Board of Directors and SEC be damned.