Posted April 27, 2009 9:04 am by with 2 comments

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ebay.jpgToday the WSJ tells the tale of eBay and its foray into social media that began in April 2008 with a blog then quickly moved to the world of tweets and tweeple in Twitter. The author of much of the content, Richard Brewer-Hay, spent most of the past year pretty well ‘on his own’ with what he was writing in both vehicles then the corporate version of a buzzkill took place.

The growing Twitter audience also attracted the attention of eBay’s lawyers, who last month required Mr. Brewer-Hay to include regulatory disclaimers with certain posts. Some followers think the tougher oversight is squelching Mr. Brewer-Hay’s spontaneous, informal style.
Financial services and insurance companies have long been hampered by what they can and cannot say that would upset the folks at the SEC and for good reason. Considering the state of the financial industry maybe this didn’t even matter.

For consumer companies, however, it’s different. Part of the new world order of hybrid sales / marketing/ PR/ advetising efforts is to create a corporate ‘personality’ that can reach out and appear more human to customers. As a result the can of worms that can be popped open by some innocent enough statements that can create an atmosphere of closeness can quickly cross the line of too much information.

All companies must be aware.

Eighty-one Fortune 500 companies sponsor public blogs, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Chevron Corp. and General Motors Corp., according to the Society for New Communications Research. Of those blogs, 23 link to corporate Twitter accounts.
The concern for all involved is that if there is too much watering down of a message to avoid a potential regulatory misstep the credibility of the effort could be compromised.

The article talks about several companies like Johnson & Johnson, EMC and Cisco that are starting to use blogs and Twitter. In the case of Cisco they are already one lawsuit into the experience. The result of that issue has not been determined yet but the threat of such a circumstance has made some step away completely.

Intel Corp. in May will be among the first companies to allow shareholders to ask questions via the Web and vote online during its annual meeting. But the chip maker avoids blogs and Twitter for investor issues, because it fears violating SEC disclosure rules or inviting public criticism in a company-hosted forum, says Kevin Sellers, vice president of investor relations.

“There’s always going to be a person with an axe to grind,” he says. “Do we really want to sponsor that?”

It’s hard to argue with that thinking since there is so little precedence set it is unlikely that many big players are going to be very experimental and risk being the poster child for a huge social media mistake.

So for the creative types working for these companies it is going to impact how they can work for sure. Mr. Brewer-Hay’s work has changed as a result of the attention the lawyers are giving him. Even his followers have noticed his tweets are less personal and he says he is under more of a microscope than he was before.

So let’s let the lawyer have the last word here since they will likely have it no matter what.

Corporate lawyers say companies should devise a social-media policy before adopting blogs or Twitter. “All of the traditional ways that a company can get in trouble for making public statements” apply to the Web, says Lisa Wood, of Foley Hoag LLP

She urges companies to include the standard disclaimers they use in other communications, as Mr. Brewer-Hay now does. Ms. Wood says companies shouldn’t disclose financial information on Twitter that isn’t available elsewhere, and should make clear that opinions expressed by others in company-sponsored forums — like comments on blogs — don’t represent management’s views.

So the degree that a company gets involved in social media looks like it will depend on its level of tolerance for potential issues. In a world that is looking for any way to make a buck, putting together a lawsuit against any big company for some perceived problem may be more popular than ever. Apparently, transparency in social media will likely be as muted as is allowed by law. So just how transparent can that actually be?