Friday, May 31, 2013

Social Media, the SEC and Corporate Disclosure – a Wobbly Three Legged Stool

I’m always surprised by it, but it turns out that some people actually read what I write. In my last post I wrote about the practical implications of the SEC’s recent Netflix social media investigation. In a nutshell, here’s what I said:
“…the release basically establishes a safe harbor for the use of social media which investor relations departments should waste no time in establishing as a prudent risk management tool. The SEC has said that companies should take steps to alert the market about which forms of communications a company intends to use for dissemination of material, non-public information. Therefore, adding language to a company’s web site and press releases to the effect that the company may from time to time use social media sites to disclose important information would seem to be the prudent thing to do.”
Shortly thereafter I received an email from Broc Romanek at ( explaining his take on the issues at hand. I have a great deal of respect for Broc and will readily admit that he knows more about the ins and outs of how the Securities and Exchange Commission works and thinks about issues than I do. On the other hand, I’ve spent the bulk of my career inside public corporations and have a pretty good feel for that particular viewpoint.  I’ve reproduced (with Broc’s permission) the email exchange below because I think it is a good illustration of the two points of view on this subject.

John – on your blog about the SEC’s guidance, the CYA approach actually is problematic. As borne out on my webcast on this topic last week, I hear that the SEC Staff is not happy with those companies announcing a bevy of SM channels for which they have no real intention of using them as investor communication venues. And investors probably don’t want to be forced to track a bevy of channels for which the company doesn’t intend to provide useful info for them. It’s a loser on both fronts.

thx, broc


I recognize that it's problematic, but it is a problem the SEC created. If I was a general counsel, and I had the opportunity to create one more layer of insulation from Reg FD claims, I would grab it. Fear of Reg FD retroactive enforcement is a giant bugaboo for many companies, so doing everything you can to lower the chance that the SEC will open an investigation makes sense.
From an investor's standpoint it is a real headache to follow multiple feeds, but most investor relations departments will take the view that it is not their job to make the analysts' job easier.
I think the CYA approach only works if the social media site is widely followed and qualifies as a recognized channel of distribution, but as more companies use social media, and CEOs become more comfortable with blogging & posting, there has got to be a way to facilitate open communication without constant fear that you will wander into the Reg FD quagmire.


John: I believe there is way too much paranoia about Reg FD compliance. Just because a statement may be Reg FD compliant – because a CYA channel was created – it isn’t insulated from a 10b-5 claim that the statement was misleading or omitted something, which will be the more likely result – and much more serious result – when something “material” is posted on a SM channel, particularly Twitter since it is limited to just 140 characters.

I’m not sure what all the implications of this social media stuff are, but this is probably a good illustration of the law of unintended consequences relating to governmental regulation. The SEC says its OK to use social media to disclose material non-public information if it qualifies as a “recognized channel of distribution” for communicating with their investors, but then is not happy when companies announce they intend to use them. Companies on the other hand, see this as a way to add a layer of protection so they don’t wind up in the SEC’s crosshairs when their CEO either gets carried away when writing a blog or Facebook post or writes something that they genuinely believe is not material as Reed Hastings of Netflix did.
The point of all of this should be to enhance and facilitate the flow of information to investors and allowing social media to serve as a recognized channel of distribution will help accomplish this. 

No comments: