Who Owns the Account? – Navigating the Minefield of Social Ownership

by Jonathan Barrick

When your job responsibilities include engaging in social media, are the contacts you make truly yours, or do they belong to the company?

It’s a divisive topic for companies who engage in social communications. If you put an employee in the position of representing your brand in social media channels, what happens with that account if that employee leaves your business? How should you set up these accounts, and how ‘personal’ do you make them appear?

Recently, the story of PhoneDog and its former employee Noah Kravitz brought forth a shining example of how things can go horribly awry. PhoneDog alleges they setup the account & username for Kravitz to use for business purposes. Over time the number of followers grew to over 17,000, and when Kravitz left to work for a competitor, he changed the account name to his own & continued to use it.

On the surface, the answer seems pretty clear. PhoneDog setup the account for business, so it’s theirs. However, there are different perspectives that come in to play in the world of social media that muddy the waters. For example, is it certain that the followers were truly following the ‘brand’, or were they following Noah? What’s the context in which this account was used? Does the context even matter, or does the original intent of the account override any personal factors rising from how it was used?

These questions can be extremely difficult to answer for some businesses, and the decisions you make here could have huge repercussions in the future. These are questions not typically addressed in your average social media policy, as they generally stick to covering things like behaviour and the types of content being shared, not the ownership of connections being made between individuals. Fortunately, there are some sensible steps you can take to easily maintain a ‘personal’ face for your brand AND minimize the risk of disruption if certain individuals leave your business.

In navigating this minefield, the first question you need to ask is “Will the account be used for BUSINESS PURPOSES?” If the answer is “Yes”, then I believe that the following criteria for the setup of social media accounts would protect both parties regarding ownership of accounts that are used for business purposes:

  • If the account was created under the individual’s personal identity prior to the beginning of the contract, the account remains property of the individual.
  • If the account was created by the company for the purposes of official company communication/representation, then the account remains property of the company.
  • It is appropriate for small businesses and sole-proprietorships to present themselves through the personal accounts of the owner, but it is important to keep in mind that any personal opinions shared through these accounts directly impact the image of the brand. It is nearly impossible to separate the brand of the business from the brand of the individual in these situations.
  • In larger businesses, it is appropriate for special corporate accounts to be created for each individual who will be participating in social communications, and these accounts should be designated as such. Example: A Dell employee named Jim might communicate on behalf of Dell on Twitter using the handle: @JimAtDell
  • Visually, choosing the right profile picture for the account is also important. Using the example above, it would make sense for @JimAtDell’s account to feature a picture of Jim with the Dell logo added to it in order to visually distinguish it as an official company account.
  • If the company will have multiple individuals contributing through the same account, it is effective to add the initials of the individual posted at the end of each piece of content to designate the person responsible for that posting. Example: An employee named Mike Smith tweeting through the @starbucks account would end each of his tweets with ‘MS’
  • In situations where multiple people are using the same social account on behalf of the company, it would be appropriate for the profile picture to be that of the corporate logo, or other universally applicable image not associated with any one particular individual. Although in certain situations, one individual may be designated to be the figurehead of the account, and therefore use of their picture along with a logo would be appropriate.
  • In certain situations, it may be wise to cross-reference the account of the individual and the account of the company in the bio spaces of each account. From the example we used earlier, Mike Smith’s @mikesmith personal twitter account bio might mention he tweets from @starbucks with the initials MS, and the @starbucks account might mention tweets from @mikesmith in its bio. This would help to ensure that business followers and personal followers are aware of the difference between the two.

Ultimately, every company needs to choose the approach that best suits their brand & their goals. And in the event that the one, singular face of your brand in social media decides to leave your business, the reality is that some of your fans WILL inevitably go with them. Of course, how many fans leave will depend on more than just how you approach each of the factors I laid out above. HOW they leave, WHERE they go, and WHY they left will all play a role in how things pan out for your business.

The best approach, of course, is to maintain a clear line of communication to the employees managing the accounts regarding the company’s expectations. Make it clear at the very beginning that the accounts created for the purposes of business belong to the company. They are communications tools just like laptops and cell phones, and the employee should understand that when they leave they must return all property. That includes Twitter accounts!

On the other side of the spectrum, companies must recognize that just like personal laptops or cell phones, a personal Twitter account stays with the individual. If you ask or require them to use their own equipment or account for company purposes, then you’d better respect their ownership of it.

This article originally written for http://crowdshifter.com