When Noah Kravitz was PhoneDog's editor in chief, he created a Twitter account and began tweeting for the company. PhoneDog claims that, after Kravitz left in October 2010, he continued to use its corporate account to tweet on behalf of himself and his new employer, merely changing the name on the account. Now PhoneDog is suing to reclaim that Twitter account and the list of followers tied to it. It's seeking $340,000 in damages.
This dispute, along with others, demonstrates that laws have not kept pace with the evolution of social media. Courtney Hunt, a principal of Renaissance Strategic Solutions, says organizations must take steps to protect themselves until legislation or case law clarifies legal parameters. Specifically, employers should do the following:
Clarify and document agreements. It's crucial to have employment agreements, confidentiality agreements and non-competes for all employees, but it's particularly important to have them for anyone who communicates with the public on the organization's behalf. These documents should make it clear that corporate social media accounts are company property and have quantifiable value.
Celebrities require special care when hired to represent a company. The celebrity will almost certainly have a significant following before starting work with your organization. Be clear what happens when the company and the celebrity end their partnership. To which followers can you communicate, how frequently, and for how long? If the celebrity also represents a complementary brand (e.g. sports equipment and energy drinks), do those answers change?
Update corporate communication guidelines. Typically, only a few people are authorized to speak publicly for any organization. Public relations controls what they say and how they say it. Because social media emerged as a form of personal communication before being adopted for corporate marketing, most policy manuals do not define how employees should use social media on behalf of the organization.
Create internal procedures. Make sure an authorized representative registers all corporate social media accounts. Don't take over accounts employees have registered personally. State clearly who is authorized to post what information. And consider having more than one person post, so that staff turnover doesn't have a noticeable impact on the organization's communication style.
Plan an ethical endgame. Treat departing employees professionally. Salespeople, recruiters and others are hired partially for their industry contacts. During their employment, they should be expected to enter job-related contacts in the CRM (not just in their LinkedIn account). However, it is unreasonable to expect employees to turn over all their professional connections when they leave. Don't ask them to relinquish their LinkedIn account or other personal social media accounts. News of unfair treatment travels fast. Acquiring a reputation as a bad workplace hurts morale and hinders recruiting, particularly when departing employees are connected to your organization's customers and business partners.
PhoneDog v. Noah Kravitz raises interesting questions. If PhoneDog wins, will it be awarded the 17,000 followers Kravitz had when he departed or the 24,000 he has now? Would PhoneDog even be able to retain them? Most social media users follow individuals, not corporations. What about followers who have subsequently unsubscribed must Kravitz pay for them?
Social media law desperately needs definition and clarity ASAP! At a minimum, the ruling in the PhoneDog case should attempt to clarify ownership issues and financial valuation for followers. Until legal standards and precedents are established, do your best to stay out of court by creating corporate guidelines to address your organization's needs.
The legal quicksand surrounding social media ensnares corporations and individuals alike. If you currently tweet, post or blog about an organization, make sure you have appropriate authorization. In addition, insist on documented agreements stating how followers will be handled upon your resignation or termination. Moreover, keep your personal and professional followers clearly separated. Or else you could soon be tweeting the blues.
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.