Why Owning Your Employee’s Twitter Account is Foolish

EricSchwartzman
Eric Schwartzman Entrepreneur / Author / Consultant , Comply Socially

Posted on December 29th 2011

Why Owning Your Employee’s Twitter Account is Foolish

Twitter Birds, Close Up

With all the talk about the complaint PhoneDog.com filed against Noah Kravitz for “misappropriation of trade secrets and damaged the company’s business, goodwill, and reputation” some companies are liable to update their social media policy.

But those that do are making a mistake. Because if they’re going to be heard through social media, they’re going to need as much help as they can get. And they’re not going to get it by imposing ownership claims over their personal social media accounts

I don’t intend to make any substantial changes to my Social Media Policy Template because of it, and here’s why:

On social networks, crowds direct our attention. If it trends, it upends. And if it doesn’t, it just ends.

What one person tweets matters only a little. What the crowd retweets, matters most. The same social gravity applies on Facebook, Linkedin and G+.  An effective corporate social media policy protects the organization and its employees alike. Afterall, why would your employees retweet your message on their personal social networking account if they’re concerned it might get them fired, or if they’re concerned you might someday try and take it away from them?

Imposing strict ownership requirements over an employee’s personal social media account discourages them from using social media for on theior employers behlaf, which means they won’t be retweeting your message.  And in nowadays, you need retweets, Likes and +1s to get noticed. So a good social media policy must encourage employee participation.

Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, who is paraphrased in a story about the incident by New York Times reporter John Biggs (@JohnBiggs) says it best:

…many industries had policies that required sales staff to leave their Rolodexes behind, but that these policies were as relevant to social media as Rolodexes are to the modern office. After all, social media accounts are, almost by definition, personal.

He also said that the average Twitter account had less clout than many might think.

On social networks, we crowd source news and information. If companies want to get noticed, they’ve got to get crowds talking. And in most cases, their employees are going to be easiest place to start.

Do you intend to update your social media policy as a result of this complaint, or will you wait to see what legal precedent, if any, transpires?

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Image By: Dbarefoot

EricSchwartzman

Eric Schwartzman

Entrepreneur / Author / Consultant , Comply Socially

Eric Schwartzman is Founder and CEO of social media training provider Comply Socially.

Follow him @ericschwartzman

He is also an independent communications consultant for hire to businesses, global nonprofits, the US Military, US Federal government agencies and foreign governments. His consulting services include digital strategy, social media audits, social media policy development, online public relations, social media marketing, search engine optimization and web development.

Schwartzman founded iPRSoftware, his best-selling book "Social Marketing to the Business Customer" is the first book devoted exclusively to social media for business-to-business communications.

See Full Profile >

Comments

MarketMeSuite
Posted on December 29th 2011 at 1:39PM

I think personal accounts are one thing, but any account opened up for the express purpose of being FOR the company needs to be protected...

Interested to see how this unfolds!

~Tammy

patmcgraw
Posted on December 29th 2011 at 2:39PM

Funny, a business will hire sales people 'for their Rolodex's' and expect the sales person to have strong relationships with decision-makers, buyers, users...

Anyway, based on the little I have read about this particular case (Kravitz-PhoneDog), it seems that Kravitz opened the Twitter account with his personal email address and used the account for personal and professional reasons for some time without his employer stepping in and laying claim to ownership of the Twitter account/handle.  Seems like their social media policy needs a little tweaking and then a lot of consistent enforcement.

I love Sree Sreenivasan's comment (below) and would love to see a match between @PhoneDog followers and former/current/potential customers of PhoneDog.  (And I would define 'potential' as 'a lead in the company's database.')

He also said that the average Twitter account had less clout than many might think.

Eric, I think the one key point of the social media policy that needs to be reviewed because of this Kravitz-PhoneDog situation would be ownership of the account.  And I would hope that the account is created by the company and assigned to the individual to use per social media policy until they leave the company, at which time, the account is closed and the followers are assigned to other company accounts or the account is assigned to another employee.

MorganBarnhart
Posted on December 29th 2011 at 4:10PM

I think it needs to be really clear in a social media policy to begin with on how to manage Twitter accounts that are representing a company. Whether it's a mix between personal or business, if the business is being talked about at all and the person is representing it, even the slightest, then that Twitter account needs to reflect upon the social media policy guidelines that were laid out when they were hired. 

I think if the employee was no longer with the company, they should relinquish the account and/or change it dramatically so that it's clear the business has no relation to that Twitter account anymore. But, that needs to be stated clearly in the policy. 

I'll definitely be cautioning my clients about this, but don't think it's absolutely necessary to include. A Twitter account can be created by an individual and if it's created by the individual, whether they talk about their company or not, the company can't exactly cease the account. Since as it's stated above, it was created with his own personal email address. 

Anyone can create a Twitter account for any reason. Nobody OWNS a Twitter account, especially not a company, nor individual. 

All of this can be avoided, though, by making your social media policy very clear. If you don't want them talking about the company on any social network, then put it in there. If you don't want the employee to create any seperate account that relates to the company, then put it in there. 

Ok, you get the point, I'm done. :) Thanks for the article! 

patmcgraw
Posted on December 29th 2011 at 5:40PM

Morgan, could you expand on what you mean by "Nobody OWNS a Twitter account..."?  I am working under the belief that if I open the account and use the account, it's my account.

Thanks!

Pat

QSpike
Posted on December 29th 2011 at 8:34PM

It looks like this is another attempt at "owning" an employee's contacts. In 2008, there was the LinkedIn case:

The question of social media account ownership has even reached British courts. In 2008, a British recruitment consultant, Mark Ions, was ordered to hand over his LinkedIn account to his former employer, Hays. A court ruled that Mr Ions contacts constituted confidential information gathered during his work for Hays and therefore the former employer had a right to access the account.

It's less likely, under British law at least, that an employer would be able to claim ownership of a Twitter or Facebook account belonging to an employee or former employer.

Here is the link to the article: http://goo.gl/mHZ5A 

Granted it is a British case, but Pay Attention ... is FaceBook and Google+ next?

Courtney Hunt
Posted on January 1st 2012 at 4:35PM

My understanding is that the original handle was @PhoneDogNoah, which would indicate that it was not purely a "personal social media account," as Eric states. That joint identity is likely at the root of the messiness, and something that organizations can easily manage. So yes, where necessary, I would advise organizations to update their social media and related policies to ensure they're clear on the "ownership" question.

Although this case has garnered a lot of attention in the past couple weeks, it's not as novel as some might think. I discussed some similar cases in a post I wrote last June:

http://www.sminorgs.net/2011/06/social-media-data-ownership-recommendations-for-employers.html

That post also includes a link to piece about social media policies, which discusses how managing Digital Era risks is far more complex - and critical - than many organization leaders believe. Here's a link to that piece:

http://www.sminorgs.net/2011/02/social-media-policies-necessary-but-not-sufficient.html