There are probably still a few skeptics out there who question the value of social media. For those naysayers, I will point you to recent news reports that companies are demanding to retain social media contact from fired employees. Clearly some companies see real value in social media intellectual property.
I recently rand across a post by Cynthia Boris, who blogs under The Marketing Pilgrim, that poses the question, “Are Twitter followers a company asset?” Are social media contacts considered proprietary information, like a customer list or competitive information? Apparently that premise is being tested in the U.S. courts, as Boris explains:
But what about your Twitter account? In the case of an employee whose job it is to update the company Twitter, it’s an easy call. It’s not so easy when you’re talking about journalists or other Tweeters who blur the line between business and personal.
Such a case is currently being tested in court, but it’s not going so well for either side. The case in question is between PhoneDog and Noah Kravitz, who used to work for them as a reporter. The object of desire is a Twitter account with 17,000 followers formerly known as @PhoneDog_Noah.
According to the original news report, “a federal judge in San Francisco refused to dismiss news site PhoneDog’s complaint which argued that a Twitter password and the identity of followers was a trade secret.” Apparently Kravitz merely changed the name of his account from PhoneDog_Noah and kept tweeting. So who owns those contacts? Is it the same as a journalist’s sources, which go with him when he leaves a job?
There is a similar case for LinkedIn contacts being tested in the U.K. for the first time, a British court is reported to have ordered an employee to turn over his LinkedIn contacts to an employer. According to the report in the Telegraph, this case “highlights the tension between businesses encouraging employees to use social networking websites for work but then claiming that the contacts remain confidential information at the end of their employment.”
Now it’s one thing if you were hired to promote the company using social media as one of your forums. I can understand where it becomes part of your job description and the content, including the contacts, would revert to the company. But what if you are using your own contacts and your own network as an extension of your job? Does that mean you have to surrender your contact information for Aunt Millie or the High School Class of 1985 because you got fired?
Commenting on the UK case for Forbes, guest columnist David Coursey notes:
Meanwhile, more and more companies are issuing policies, and asking employees to sign contracts and agreements, that spell out who owns social media contacts. According to a recent study by DLA Piper, a third of employers have disciplined employees for something posted on a social media site. The research also found that 21% of employers had to give their employees a warning for posting something derogatory about a colleague or about the business itself.
One thing is clear, it’s time to start updating your contracts, whether you are working as a full-time employee or as an agency or consultant. Intellectual property is becoming increasingly valuable, and they could be an increasingly valuable asset that should follow you as you build your personal network to further your own career or advance your business. If you are going to use social media as part of your job, be sure you understand who owns the social media content and the contacts. If there is a doubt, duplicate – create a professional social media persona and a personal persona and keep them separate (although you might enlist the same followers to track both accounts). But whatever you do, be sure you know where you stand with your clients or employers. If you aren’t sure, ask! It’s better to come to an understanding now rather than getting into a tussle later.