Social media ownership: business account vs. personal account Article added by Amy McIlwain on April 15, 2014
Amy McIlwain

Amy McIlwain

Denver, CO

Joined: August 26, 2010

You wouldn’t let a former employee walk out of your office with the TV from your lobby, the refrigerator from the break room, or the computer off of your desk. Don’t let them sneak away with your digital property, either, because losing a social profile, its followers and the resources invested in growing those networks could be a significant loss to your business.

We spend a lot of time discussing the value of social media with advisors. Most of the time, we do it in abstract terms, but the actual financial value of social profiles is becoming an important part of the digital marketing discussion. The most recent issue that has come to light is establishing who has ownership of a financial firm’s social account: the employer or the employee?

If this line isn’t established for all employees in your firm, you could be facing some serious repercussions, including the loss of your prospects, client relationships and online brand. Despite the frivolous stigma of social media, in court, ownership disputes can equal serious accusations, including trade secret violations and identity theft. Why is this is an issue?

If you are a part of a large advisor network, or even if you own a small firm yourself, the issue of social ownership can affect a business on both an individual and brand level. While necessary, managing the social media accounts for your business can be time consuming, and advisors will often delegate this responsibility to a tech-savvy intern or marketing manager. What happens when your intern completes their contract or your social media manager pursues a new opportunity at a different firm? The value of a social media account is in the followers and fans of that account and the password needed to access it. Who does this value belong to?

Even if a social account bears your company’s name, Twitter allows a user to change their username, while keeping their profile the same. At the end of the day, your social media accounts are an extremely valuable piece of company property. Sure, a Twitter handle won’t be showing up on your next balance sheet, but think of it this way: You wouldn’t let a former employee walk out of your office with the TV from your lobby, the refrigerator from the break room, or the computer off of your desk. Don’t let them sneak away with your digital property, either, because losing a social profile, its followers and the resources invested in growing those networks could be a significant loss to your business. Here are a couple of examples.

Jim Roberts vs. New York Times

The first example is that of New York Times former assistant managing editor, Jim Roberts. When the New York Times buyout occurred in early 2013, Roberts decided to take the buyout and leave the company. Hailed as being a “digital trailblazer” as well as an early adopter of social media, he gave newspaper editors an online voice by building the publication’s digital presence with the help of his Twitter handle, @nytjim. When he left the New York Times he had over 77,000 Twitter followers, including notable political players, thought leaders and celebrities. A loss of 77,000 plus readers, in addition to the talent that cultivated them, was a big hit to the news giant, especially during this transitional time. Roberts went on to work for Reuters, keeping the Twitter account but changing his handle to @nycjim. He now has over 100,000 people following his tweets about news and current events from all media outlets.
Noah Kravitz vs. PhoneDog

To date, the most publicized lawsuit over Twitter ownership is that of mobile phone site PhoneDog versus Noah Kravitz. Kravitz, the company’s former editor in chief, managed the Twitter handle for PhoneDog, representing both himself and the company with the handle @Phonedog_Noah, and acquired over 17,000 followers. When he left the company, instead of handing over the account to PhoneDog, he changed the Twitter handle to @NoahKravitz and continued to tweet to the same 17,000+ followers. PhoneDog sued Kravitz, estimating they were owed a value of $2.50 for each Twitter follower. That’s $42,500. Eventually Kravitz was allowed to keep his Twitter account and all of its followers after he and PhoneDog agreed on an undisclosed settlement. Talk about a mess!

What can we learn from this? Both of these examples prove how companies and their employees need to agree to written contracts outlining social media practice and establishing ownership. Kravitz himself has some great advice: “Good contracts and specific work agreements are important, and the responsibility for constructing them lies with both parties. Work it out ahead of time so you can focus on doing good work together — that’s the most important thing.” And that’s exactly what you should do. Here’s how:
  • Set social media boundaries and define ownership from the start. This will help both you and your team avoid any confusion or wrong assumptions. Communicate that the employer is the owner of the company's social media in all employee documents, including the offer letter, job description, and confidentiality and separation agreements.
  • Have a manger set up any social media accounts and share the username (with the company name in it) and passwords with the individuals who need access to it. Also, make sure that the email address associated with that account is owned and operated by the company, not the employee.
  • Have a manager assist in determining content and the editorial calendar for social media platforms.
  • As your employees continue to think outside of the social media box (this is why you hired them, after all!) keep your social media policy up-to-date to prevent any negative repercussions.
  • If you are using a third-party resource to manage your account, make sure it’s clear that those accounts are your property. We include a line in every contract ensuring that our clients have the rights to all of their accounts and that we are simply the workhorse and farmhands helping them make those accounts successful.
Determine ownership of social media accounts

Unclear about whether it's the employer or employee who has ownership of an existing social account? Here are some questions to consider:
  • Who set up the account and determined the content?
  • Was the account set up before or during employment?
  • Who has access to the account and passwords?
  • Is the Twitter handle or account name associated with the business?
  • How valuable are fans and followers? This is a gray area; fans and followers are always valuable because they determine communication reach to potential customers. Social media professionals often recommend that advisors start with their own network of friends as a jumping off point in social media.
While every question does not lead to a black and white answer, it can be a helpful starting point for assessing which actions to take now to avoid a sticky situation in the future.

See also:

10 tips to help advisors avoid lawsuits

The power of social media: Fake tweet sends the Dow down

Social media and compliance: Do you have a policy for your firm?
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