The SEC and Social Media


Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings got into trouble on July 3, 2012 when he used his personal Facebook page to announce that Netflix had more than one billion hours of online viewing in June. That trouble came from an SEC rule implemented in August of 2000: Regulation FD. That rule was implemented to stop the egregious practice of some companies delivering company news to select recipients ahead of a general announcement. Those select recipients would be able to make money from getting the news ahead of time and trading on the upcoming stock movement.

The SEC issued its report on the investigation of Mr. Hastings and determined not to pursue an enforcement action against him. The SEC publicly released its Report of Investigation to help provide some guidance on the use of social media for public company disclosure.

Personally, I thought Mr. Hastings made a bad decision in using his personal Facebook page to make a company announcement. The information had already been released, but in more technical releases. His personal Facebook page did have 200,000 friends who could see the news, but it was still gated and not available to the general public in a broad and non-exclusionary manner. It was a poor choice, but not one that should subject him or the company to an enforcement action.

Regulation FD is written to be platform neutral. You can release “important” company information as long as it available to everyone at the same time. It applies equally to press releases, company websites, Twitter, Facebook, or the big rock in front of your headquarters.

The key for correct distribution is to let people know where the news will be distributed. You could argue that Steve Jobs’ annual display of the latest gadget from Apple is a distribution channel that everyone knows about. A company could carve company announcements into the stone in front of its headquarters if it so chose.

Mr. Hastings foot-fault was that Netflix had not previously used his personal page as a platform for releasing company news. In early December 2012, Hastings stated for the public record that

“we [Netflix] don’t currently use Facebook and other social media to get material information to investors; we usually get that information out in our extensive investor letters, press releases and SEC filings.”

Hastings errant Facebook post was probably not “important” enough and the Facebook page was probably just public enough that the SEC thought it could not win an enforcement action. I’m sure Hastings and Facebook paid quite a bit in legal fees to address the repercussions of that errant post.

It’s not big news that the SEC has embraced social media. The SEC merely reminded companies that they need to go through the Regulation FD analysis when using social media platforms. The SEC embraced social media a long time ago.

I think Facebook is terrible primary platform for important corporate disclosures. It lacks the workflow and content management tools that any corporate communication professional would want to have. The same is even more so with Twitter. It’s hard to do much with 140 characters, except direct the reader to another website.

To de-emphasize the importance of the SEC guidance, it’s not even released as SEC guidance, a risk alert, or other typical SEC regulatory rulings. It merely restates what Regulation FD says and drops in the word Facebook. Too many social media specialists will merely read the headline.

Even Facebook does not use Facebook for company announcements. This announcement will not change that. Maybe Facebook will see the potential for including content management and compliance tools that will allow companies to embrace Facebook and be in compliance with securities laws.