We’ve considered why your firm might want a social media policy in the past but it’s clear now that it’s not only wise to keep employees in check but to keep the SEC from breathing down everyone’s necks.
Regulation FD (fair disclosure) is meant to prevent selective disclosure by issuers of material nonpublic information and insider trading liability in connection with a trader’s “use” or “knowing possession” of material nonpublic information. The rules are designed to promote the full and fair disclosure of information by issuers, and to clarify and enhance existing prohibitions against insider trading.
Without a social media policy, any employee of the company tweeting or blogging about company events could broadly be assumed to be company communications. Whether or not these people are officially representing the company or not is irrelevant; selective disclosure could be as simple as a poorly-timed post about a company secret (i.e. “our awesome new product will be released in two weeks!”) on an employee’s Facebook page, which is public but limited to the employee’s 100 or so family and friends. In theory, an astute friend could take this as a buy signal, knowing X product will cause quite a storm once it hits the market. Welcome to insider trading: social media edition. Notice here that the intention is not what is important but rather the event itself. The SEC doesn’t care if the employee meant to pump up his or her employer’s stock but rather that the employee chose to selectively disclose information not readily available to the public that the employee is privy to to a limited group of people.
How far could the SEC take this?
The SEC’s guidance set forth three considerations to help determine whether information posted on corporate websites is considered “public.”
* Whether a company’s Web site is a recognized channel of distribution;
* Whether information is posted and accessible, and therefore disseminated in a manner calculated to reach investors; and
* Whether information is posted for a reasonable period so that it has been absorbed by investors.
The guidance goes on to clarify that statements made on blogs or other interactive websites are subject to the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws, and companies cannot require investors to waive protections under the federal securities laws as a condition of using such interactive websites.
The only control companies have in this is to have a very clear, intelligent social media policy that either limits or forbids disclosure of non-public information through blogs and social media. This isn’t new (this interpretation was released in August of 2008) but what is new is the rumor that the SEC is beginning to send deficiency letters to registered investment advisers it examines, specifically those who do not have a social media policy in place.
A document request list sent by the SEC to some advisers asks for a broad range of data related to social media use, according to a compliance alert from ACA Compliance Group. Among other things, the SEC is seeking to identify how often advisers use social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Digg, Redditt, as well as any blogs used by, or subscribed to, by the adviser. They are also looking at communications made by, or received by an adviser on any social media website including among others, blog postings, messages, and/or tweets.
According to the WSJ, an SEC spokesman declined to comment on the deficiency letters. However, an SEC official said at a compliance conference last month that misuse of social media is an issue on their radar in SEC examinations and enforcement. Misuse being defined as investment advisers who fake information on their LinkedIn profiles to buff up their appearance to investors.