Monday, 14 November 2011

Social Media Pre-Nups and the Question of Social Media Ownership

Are brand-associated social media channels
trade secrets?

I have been following with great interest the debate about who owns social media followers. First, we have the case of Laura Kuenssberg who left her job as chief political correspondent at the BBC and moved on to rival, ITV on its business desk, taking over 60,000 Twitter followers with her. And it was as simple as changing her Twitter name and moving from @BBCLauraK to @ITVLauraK.

And most recently, there is the case of PhoneDog versus NoahKravitz in a battle to the death over 17,000 Twitter followers that the company asserts were “stolen” from them, when Kravitz, upon leaving the company, changed his screen name from @PhoneDog_Noah to @noahkravitz.

One may argue that the question is who has ownership of your voice but it is also a wider issue of how one chooses to brand oneself within the social media space and how this ultimately affects the entire question of who owns what.

Both Kuenssberg and Kravitz built massive Twitter followings using their employers’ names as an extension of their brand. And while social media is about humanising a brand and having real people, with their own tone, passion and je ne sais quoi, one also has to question whether most followers are subscribing to the person or to the brand. 

@ITVLauraK - Laura Kuenssberg's Twitter page
In Kuenssberg’s case, were followers really that interested in business news from ITV or did they specifically follow her because she “represented” BBC’s politics desk? There is a very murky grey area around the whole issue and one that many organisations may now wish to address in a more formal way.

When leaving a job, you are obliged to relinquish tangible and intangible ownership of perks to the position – personal computers, mobile phones, vehicles, representation. Now one also has to consider the protection of social media capital. Is a Twitter password, really a “trade secret”? If the company’s brand is clearly stated and it is not just an employee lending professional opinion from a personal account, what steps should be taken? The Drum cites the opinion of attorney, Steve Kuncewicz:

“… the best thing for a business would be to include a clause in their employment contracts requiring that anyone who tweets on their behalf should do so using a username that incorporates a brand (as ITV and PhoneDog did) - this way they can look to take action under Twitter's terms of use to force that user to close down the account for the unauthorised use of or suggestion of a continuing connection with that brand when they leave. Trying to work in any kind of clause which confers ownership of the existing following of a high-profile employee joining the business will be difficult if not impossible, so starting as you mean to go on is the best way of keeping hold of followers in this kind of situation, along with including a clause which prohibits the employee from making an announcement on their work-profile that they're leaving in an effort to move followers to their new account.”

So, while subscribers ultimately have a choice between the person and the brand, it still comes back to the need for brands to have a clear and strong social media policy – a social media pre-nup, as it were – about, among other things, who gets the “assets” when the marriage is over.


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