An eBay Inc. effort to broaden
communication through the popular Twitter Web-messaging service highlights
the hurdles facing corporate users of online social media.
auctioneer launched a corporate blog in April 2008. Two months later,
blogger Richard Brewer-Hay began "tweeting" -- posting updates on Twitter
-- about Silicon Valley technology conferences, eBay's quarterly earnings
calls and other topics.
some big companies with corporate blogs that link to corporate
Toys 'R' Us
Johnson & Johnson
New York Life Insurance
Whole Foods Market
for New Communications Research
Note: Other big
companies may have Twitter accounts that are not featured on
their corporate blogs.
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
His experience shows the tension that can arise as more companies tap
social media to reach investors, customers and others. 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.
Johnson & Johnson executive reported for the first time on the
health-care giant's annual meeting via Twitter, which allows users to post
"tweets" of as many as 140 characters from devices with Internet access.
Such efforts raise thorny questions. Blogs and tweets can run afoul of
Securities and Exchange Commission regulations on corporate
communications. But sanitizing such posts risks hurting credibility with
"This is all new to companies, and they're not sure where they can go,"
says Dominic Jones, editor of IR Web Report, an online newsletter for
The SEC boasts its own Twitter account, and encourages companies to
communicate to investors via the Web. In July, the commission said
companies could disseminate certain information on the Web without issuing
a news release.
But even some tech-savvy companies remain wary.
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
"There's always going to be a person with an axe to grind," he says. "Do
we really want to sponsor that?"
Employees' online chatter has created problems elsewhere. Two Texas
lawyers last year sued
Cisco Systems Inc. and an employee for defamation after the employee
in a blog accused the pair of criminal activity in a case against Cisco.
The case is pending, and the employee left Cisco voluntarily later last
EBay hired Mr. Brewer-Hay in January 2008, as it sought to shore up its
reputation among sellers on its Web site. It asked the social-media
veteran to be an "internal reporter" to increase transparency and put a
face on the company, says Jose Mallabo, eBay's director of corporate
His informal tweets proved popular, attracting 1,400 "followers" today, up
from 345 on Jan. 1. During a January conference call, Chief Executive John
Donahoe told investors that eBay's Skype Internet-telephone service
offered only "minimal" synergies with the rest of the company. "Watch this
space," Mr. Brewer-Hay tweeted. On April 14, eBay said it planned to spin
These days, Mr. Brewer-Hay is more restrained around financial matters. He
posted around 75 tweets from his computer during eBay's quarterly earnings
call Wednesday. Most repeated verbatim comments by eBay executives.
Users noticed a change. Mr. Brewer-Hay's prior tweets were "much more
personal," says Sue Bailey, a follower who sells jewelry on eBay and
writes a blog on e-commerce. In the past, she says, "it didn't feel like
eBay tweeting, it felt like Richard tweeting."
Mr. Brewer-Hay says he's trying to stick to the script. "There's much more
of a microscope on what I'm doing now," he says.
and other corporate tweeters say the service offers companies many
benefits, with manageable risks. Chuck Hollis, a vice president of
corporate marketing at
EMC Corp., says Twitter helps him spread company news and track the
opinions of employees, investors and outsiders.
"The immediacy can be breathtaking," he says. "You can't ignore Twitter as
part of your overall corporate social-media strategy, just like you can't
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
Write to Cari Tuna at
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