Last week I read an article on BusinessWeek.com that presented the results of a survey of c-level executives regarding employees and social networks. According to the survey from Deloitte, 60% of c-level executives interviewed believe they have a right to know how their employees represent themselves and their companies on social networking sites. On the flip side, 53% of employees surveyed believe their activities on social networking sites should be of no concern to employers. So, are the executives corporate lurkers, protective business owners, authoritative leaders, or just clueless about social networking?
Unfortunately, social networking is so new, that there isn’t a solid answer yet. In addition, and more importantly, there’s no legal precedent, which means this can be a very messy situation. But hold on, is there legal precedent? More on that soon. By the way, the legal implications of social networking and ownership of accounts has become increasingly hot over the past year or so. You can read great posts by Beth Harte and John Jantsch about the subject, and both yielded some very interesting comments. You can tell this topic hits a nerve for both employees and executives (and is especially touchy for those of us in between who help companies with social media strategy).
As I’ve been helping companies with their online marketing efforts, developing social media strategies has obviously become an increasingly important element. And as I’ve been participating in and evangelizing Twitter, some core questions keep coming up. Employees often ask how to best connect with a target audience, how to build a following, what to tweet, Twitter etiquette, etc. But when speaking with executives, the conversation usually moves in another direction. “Glenn, who owns the accounts we are setting up?” That’s when I grab a conference room with a white board and start explaining the 500 shades of grey that are associated with my response.
It’s just not an easy answer, right? For example, was the account set up while working for the organization or was it already established? What role does that employee have in the company? Is that person focused on social media marketing, community management, or do they focus on something else unrelated to marketing? Are they tweeting about the company and industry? The white board diagram I create typically looks like a grapevine of connections, risks, and potential legal pitfalls. Subsequently, I can’t wait to erase it after the conversation.
But is the situation really that unclear? Is there legal precedent? Are we just trying to convince ourselves that our Twitter accounts are our own? I didn’t have the answers, so I enlisted the help of a lawyer to try and answer some of these questions. That’s right, I walked right into the lion’s den. That’s how I roll. Read on.
A Lawyer I Actually Like…
There aren’t many people in business that get up in the morning and say, “I can’t wait for that meeting with Legal today!” I understand why, but I’ve always been heavily interested in business law. And whether you like it or not, lawyers are a necessary evil in business. Those of you who have started your own businesses understand this already, and for those of you thinking about launching a business, please read the first part of this sentence again. Although it will cost you money, time, and aggravation, having the right lawyer assisting you as you grow your business can save you 10x the amount in the long term. And if you look past the strong-minded views, excessive talking, and getting billed for faxes, you can actually learn a lot from lawyers.
While thinking about Twitter ownership, I decided to call Mike Pisauro, a lawyer I know from Princeton, NJ. Mike focuses heavily on business law and commercial litigation. I have always found him to be a wealth of legal knowledge, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a cool guy. And since Mike is on Twitter and learning more about online marketing, I think he provides a solid foundation in how law and social networking play together (or don’t play together depending on your perspective).
I brought up several situations to Mike that are happening today with regard to Twitter, and I asked him to analyze each situation to see who owns the Twitter account (from a legal perspective). I’ll be honest, sometimes I didn’t like what he had to say. But that’s why you need a lawyer! They will give you real-world advice based on real-world cases. That’s versus the “I’m above the law because I have thousands of followers” answer. There’s a big difference between the two, especially since many judges probably think Twitter is that sound their pacemaker emits when they have too much coffee.
My Take On Who Owns Your Twitter Account:
Based on what I do for a living, I’m forced to look at this situation from a few perspectives. One from being an avid online marketer, blogger, and Twitter user. I’m a huge believer in how powerful Twitter can be for connecting with a targeted audience. I also know how powerful blogging and Twitter can be for getting the word out about a specific subject (and how that can impact natural search rankings). And yes, I’m also that guy talking to people on the plane, in cabs, on the train, and at Starbucks about the power of Twitter. But, I also have to look at Twitter from the perspective of the executives I help. Twitter is so new to them, which leads to a lot of confusion about the subject. Actually, some barely know what Twitter is, how it can be used, and more importantly for people like us, how it can impact the bottom line. And yes, it absolutely can do that for those of you not convinced yet. But as I build strategies that incorporate Twitter, almost all of the c-level executives I have helped ask the question, “Who owns the Twitter account?”
So, to help provide a better answer than, “there are many shades of grey…” I decided to list some common scenarios. I’ll provide my take and then Mike will dissect each one from a legal perspective.
1. Grandfathered Twitter Accounts
The account has been set up for a while and the employee will help the company on Twitter occasionally. The account already has Twitter Equity (followers, influence, etc.)
In this scenario, the employee already has a Twitter account with a following before he started working for the company. The employee has not been hired as the social media marketing manager or community manager, but he will help get the word out about company-related initiatives from time to time. The core point being that Twitter is not part of the job description. For example, Joe Employee has 3400 followers and his account is over two years old. He uses his account to tweet about a number of subjects, one including the industry he’s in. But, he was not hired to do this for the company and it’s not his primary responsibility. To me, this account is Joe’s and the company he works for has no right to claim ownership of his account or his followers. If he keeps going down the path of growing that account, and it has no direct connection to the company, then he owns it.
Mike: Glenn, all of my answers must begin with a couple of caveats (what do you expect from a lawyer?). From the initial get go no can own another person so no one can own followers (again sometimes we must state the overly obvious). Now that is out of the way, the question is really two fold. First, who retains the right to maintain or use the list of followers? Second, who owns the content of the tweets?