A dispute over who owned a hybrid company/personal Twitter account has been settled, with the individual user holding onto his followers and providing a lesson for companies about creating clear and unambiguous social media policies.
Noah Kravitz, former public face of the technology website Phonedog.com, had accumulated 17,000 followers on his Twitter account, PhoneDog_Noah, which he used to promote the brand and drum up interest in the site. However, when Kravtiz left the company in October 2010, he took the Twitter feed, renamed noahkravitz, and his followers with him.
Several months down the road, the feed became the subject of a novel legal debate: Who actually owned the account and its followers? Phonedog apparently decided they made a mistake in letting it out of their hands and sued Kravitz last year for $340,000 for taking away the cyber-megaphone they believed rightly belonged to them.
The media world watched carefully to see how a judge might rule in the unprecedented litigation. Ultimately, we were deprived a legal opinion when Kravitz and Phonedog settled the suit for undisclosed terms, in an agreement that allowed Kravitz to maintain ownership of the feed. However, just because there was no judicial ruling doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be gained from the affair.
Know Your Policy
The entire lawsuit could have been avoided in the first place if Phonedog had a social media policy in place clarifying who owned accounts that were used for company business. However, Twitter is a relatively new technology and when Kravitz first started the account it was unclear exactly how important social media sites were going to be for a company building an Internet presence, so policies were nebulous if they existed at all.
“The typically ill-defined terms of ownership in an organization’s social media presence, and the significant value that an employee’s own professional stature brings to that presence, can result in proprietary disputes over social networking accounts,” writes Lisa Milam-Perez, a labor and employment attorney with Wolters Kluwer, on the Employment Law Daily blog.
Milam-Perez lays out some simple guidelines companies should follow to prevent problems before they start:
Stating in your social media policy that the accounts, their related passwords, and their “friends” and followers are the property of the organization;
Requiring employees to affirm in writing their understanding that they maintain or administer your site as part of their job and, as such, all control over the accounts and passwords reverts to the company upon their departure, voluntary or involuntary;
Adopting uniform branding, content and style guidelines and usage policies across the organization to minimize excess personalization;
Assigning more than one employee to serve as administrators of each of the organization’s social networking accounts;
Demanding that all social networking account information and passwords are also in the possession of the site administrator’s manager;
The Size of the Megaphone
Another takeaway is that Twitter followers have value. How much value, we’re not exactly sure — Phonedog put the number at $2.50 per follower per month in their lawsuit, although that seems absurdly high. However, the accumulation of real followers who are interested in a particular feed and follow links (not fake accounts that can be purchased to bulk up the perceived importance of a feed) is clearly an important commodity for a company that wants to build its influence, and 17,000 of them is nothing to sneeze at.
Though they failed to regain control of the account, it was worth enough to Phonedog to spend the time and money to initiative a lawsuit to try to get the followers back. Even without an exact number to pin to, the correlation is obvious: the more followers, the more clout and reach an individual or company can claim, similar to circulation numbers for a newspaper or magazine.
Lawyers.com weighs in with a hefty 47,000 followers, while Editor-in-Chief Larry Bodine has a respectable 12,000 hanging on his every tweet. Note that while Bodine frequently sends missives about Lawyers.com news, the company and personal accounts are clearly separated to eliminate any ambiguity as to who owns what.
For perspective, Lady Gaga currently has the most Twitter followers at 32.2 million and counting. A media company can only dream of that kind of reach!