FINRA and Social Networking Sites

April 2, 2010

As the technologies and uses of online social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, by regulated members of the financial services community continue to grow and evolve, the regulations – and the regulators – struggle to keep up. Recently, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued a Regulatory Notice (No. 10-06) providing guidance to firms and their personnel regarding the use of these networks. Although the types of media may change daily, FINRA’s position and rules do not – firms must find a way to apply existing rules to any and all types of new media and networking activities. The topics covered in this notice include:

Social Media Policies and Procedures: Firms must implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to assure that their personnel who contribute to social media sites for business purposes are properly supervised, have the necessary training and background to engage in such activities, and do not create undue risks to investors.

At a minimum, all firms must implement policies that (1) prohibit associated persons from engaging in business communications on a social media site that is not subject to the firm’s supervision; and (2) allow only those associated persons who have received appropriate training about the firm’s policies and procedures to engage in communications on these sites.

Types of Communications – Principal Approval: “Interactive electronic forums” are included in the definition of “public appearance” in NASD Rule 2210, and therefore, do not require prior principal approval. FINRA has stated that unscripted participation by firm personnel in chat rooms or online seminars, and real-time interactive communications on blogs and other interactive sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn would be considered interactive electronic forums. However, static content would be considered an “advertisement” under Rule 2210, and therefore, must be approved by a principal prior to posting.

Both static and interactive content must still be supervised in a manner reasonably designed to ensure that it does not violate the content requirements of FINRA’s communications rules. As a general matter, firms have flexibility in designing their supervisory structure, and may employ risk-based principles to determine the extent and manner of review (e.g., prior-use vs. post-use review).

Suitability Standards: Any investment “recommendation” made through a social media site triggers the suitability requirements. Special concerns are raised if the recommendation is widely available to users of the site or pertains to specific investment products. As a best practice, FINRA suggests prohibiting all interactive electronic communications that recommend a specific investment product unless they have been pre-approved by a principal.

Recordkeeping Duties: A firm that intends to communicate, or permit its associated persons to communicate, through social media sites must ensure that the firm can retain and retrieve records of those communications in accordance with SEC and FINRA rules.

Third-Party Posts: Note that FINRA does not usually treat posts by customers or other third parties as the firm’s communications. However, in some circumstances, a third-party post may potentially be attributable to the firm if it (1) was involved itself in the preparation of the content, or (2) endorsed or approved (explicitly or implicitly) the posted content. Prominent disclosure that third-party posts neither reflect the views of the firm, nor have been reviewed for completeness or accuracy, may help avoid this issue.

It should be noted that the notice only addresses the use by a firm or its personnel of social media sites for business purposes. It is highly recommended that a firm’s policies and procedures in this area also address personal usage of these sites by firm personnel.

Helping our clients navigate the regulations and market challenges of online business and electronic social media is a service provided by our integrated Technology & Outsourcing practice team. In providing services to regulated financial entities our team works closely with lawyers who practice regularly in our Securities & Corporate Finance area. For further information on online businesses and electronic communications policies and procedures please contact us.