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Why You Need An Ownership Policy For Your Company Twitter Account

Companies can find themselves in quite the conundrum if they don’t set up policies for their company Twitter accounts. Because the law is fuzzy on the issue, without a policy, an individual employee may be able to take a company-affiliated Twitter account with them when they leave, even if the company name was leveraged to gain those followers. The only way to prevent, or rather deter, this from happening, is to develop a clear policy on how the account can be used and what happens to it when an employee leaves or is terminated.

Papal Twitter Account
One of the more recent cases relevant to this issue was when Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement from the papacy in February. The Vatican had the foresight to make a Twitter account for the papacy rather than an individual account, but the pope’s Twitter account was set up just two months earlier in December and had garnered more than 2 million followers in that time. The pope now, and in the future, can be found on Twitter with the handle @Pontifex.

Kravitz vs. PhoneDog
Not all businesses were as forward thinking. In 2010, Noah Kravitz left the company PhoneDog and took his account, @PhoneDog_Noah and its 17,000 followers with him. He then changed the account to @noahkravitz and continued to use it. PhoneDog filed a lawsuit seeking damages of $340,000, or $2.50 per follower per month for eight months. Unforunately, the case never played out in court; it was settled privately and few details are known about that settlement.

Lack of Access
Renee Jackson, an employment lawyer at Nixon Peabody, LLP, tells Forbes that issues like these usually occur when a company hires an employee to manage its social media accounts, or comes into the position with professional industry experience regarding social media. She says that many times, when the employee leaves, the employer doesn’t have the login information and can’t access the accounts.

Designed for the Individual
Social media accounts are designed for individual use rather than corporate use. Their conditions of use are for individuals, too. Even if an employee uses the company’s name in a Twitter handle, it could still be considered property of the individual unless a corporate policy has been in place forbidding employees to create such accounts.

Who Owns What?
Who owns the followers and content generated on Twitter accounts? Well, no one, really. According to Wharton’s professor of legal studies and business ethics Kevin Werbach, “No one ‘owns’ their followers as a matter of property.” Because there is no legal precedent, matters like these are usually subject to contract law. It’s not as clear-cut as when an employee, say, steals a list of clients, because followers on Twitter are not necessary clients or customers, though they have the potential to be.

Why a Policy Needs to Be Spelled Out
So, what does this mean for you? To avoid confusion with any existing or future employees as to who owns company-affiliated Twitter accounts, a policy should be carefully spelled out. Companies should consult their legal departments to have the policy implemented into new and existing employee contracts before allowing employees to engage in social media. This policy should specify how employees may refer to the company in social media as well as detail the permitted use of generated content. Employees should also be asked to refrain from discussing the company on their personal social media profiles. Companies need to specify the penalties for violating the policy, which may include employee termination.

Infintech Designs’ professional team has in-depth knowledge of social media, including Twitter. If you need an outside perspective on your online presence, give them a call.

Sources:
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3210
http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2013/02/18/company-social-media-accounts-who-owns-those-Twitter-followers/

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