On April 2, 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued guidance in the form of the Report of Investigation under Section 21(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which indicates that social media channels—such as Twitter and Facebook—could be used by public companies to disseminate material information, without running afoul of Regulation FD. Report of Investigation Pursuant to Section 21(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934: Netflix, Inc., and Reed Hastings, Release No. 34-69729 (April 2, 2013) (the “21(a) Report”). The SEC emphasized that companies should apply the guidance from its 2008 interpretive release regarding the disclosure of material information on company websites when analyzing whether a social media channel is in fact a “recognized channel of distribution,” including the guidance that investors must be provided with appropriate notice of the specific channels that a company will use in order to disseminate material nonpublic information.

The SEC confirmed in the 21(a) Report that Regulation FD applies to social media and other emerging means of communication used by public companies in the same way that it applies to company websites as discussed in the 2008 Guidance, which clarified that websites can serve as an effective means for disseminating information if investors have been made aware that they can locate the company information on the website.

The 21(a) Report indicates that, while every situation must be evaluated on its own facts, disclosure of material nonpublic information on the personal social media site of an individual corporate officer, without advance notice to investors that the social media site may be used for this purpose, is unlikely to qualify as an acceptable method of disclosure under securities laws. In this regard, the SEC notes that it would not normally be assumed that the personal social media sites of public company employees would serve as channels through which the company discloses material nonpublic information.

In analyzing the applicability of Regulation FD to any communications, the SEC notes that while the Regulation FD adopting release highlighted concerns about “selective” disclosure of information to favored analysts or investors, “the identification of the enumerated persons within Regulation FD is inclusive, and the prohibition does not turn on an intent or motive of favoritism.” The SEC also emphasizes that nothing in the Regulation FD would suggest that disclosure of material nonpublic information to a broader group that includes both enumerated and non-enumerated persons, but that still would not constitute a public disclosure, would somehow result in Regulation FD being inapplicable. Rather, the SEC states that “the rule makes clear that public disclosure of material nonpublic information must be made in a manner that conforms with Regulation FD whenever such information is disclosed to any group that includes one or more enumerated persons.” As a result, whenever a company makes a disclosure to an enumerated person, including to a broader group of recipients through a social media channel, the company must consider whether that disclosure implicates Regulation FD, including determining whether the disclosure includes material nonpublic information and whether the information was being disseminated in a manner “reasonably designed to provide broad, non-exclusionary distribution of the information to the public” in the event that the issuer did not choose to file a Form 8-K.

Drawing on the reference to “push” technologies (such as email alerts, RSS feeds and interactive communication tools, such as blogs) in the 2008 Guidance, the SEC acknowledged that social media channels are an extension of these concepts, and therefore the guidance should apply equally in the context of social media channels. Given the “direct and immediate communication” possible through social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, the SEC expects companies to examine whether such channels are recognized channels of distribution. In particular, the SEC emphasized the need to take steps to alert the market about which forms of communication a company intends to use for the dissemination of material nonpublic information. The SEC notes that without this sort of notice, the investing public would have to keep pace with a “changing and expanding universe of potential disclosure channels.” The ways in which such notice could be provided would include: (1) references in periodic reports and press releases on the corporate website and disclosures that the company routinely posts important information on that website and (2) disclosures on corporate websites identifying the specific social media channels a company intends to use for the dissemination of material nonpublic information (thereby giving people the opportunity to subscribe to, join, register for, or review that particular channel).

In light of the SEC’s guidance, companies should consider whether to specifically address the use of social media in Regulation FD policies, including whether prohibitions, restrictions or editorial oversight should be implemented to govern the use of social media by those persons authorized to speak for the company. This will remain an evolving area that must be continually monitored, as the methods for interacting with shareholders, analysts and others continue to evolve. As with the 2008 Guidance, companies may not be in a position to implement the 21(a) Report’s guidance in such a way that they could do away with more traditional forms of public dissemination, but the guidance may provide more comfort for companies using social media to supplement other more traditional forms of communication. Companies should carefully evaluate what social media channels may be useful for communicating information, and begin providing notice that information about the company may be found on those social media channels, while using those channels as a regular source of information. At the same time, companies should advise individual officers, directors and employees that posting information about the company on social media channels could potentially implicate Regulation FD, and therefore such persons must exercise caution when communicating through social media.