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Employee Twitter Accounts: Who Really Owns the Followers?

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If I said “tweet” to you back in 2005, you would have thought I was playing charades. But with people generating more than 340 million tweets daily, Twitter has become a social media phenomenon … and an employment liability risk.

One important issue: Who owns that Twitter handle? And if your employees post on their work-related Twitter accounts, can employees “take” those followers when they leave?

Case in Point: Noah Kravitz started working in 2006 as an editor at PhoneDog Media, covering the wireless industry. Over the next four years, PhoneDog invested in Noah by sending him to trade shows and conferences across the country and helping to get him booked as an expert on CNBC, FOX Business and other media outlets.

During this time, PhoneDog also expanded its efforts to grow a social media audience and helped Noah become somewhat of a social media celebrity. Noah’s Twitter account, using the handle @phonedognoah, collected more than 17,000 followers.

Eventually, Noah decided to leave PhoneDog. Upon his exit, he changed his handle to @noahkravitz but kept the 17,000 followers. Shortly after, he opened up his own cyber office in the same industry and began tweeting to those followers.

The company brought several claims of misappropriation of trade secrets against Noah, arguing that those Twitter followers are worth $2.50 per month and, thus, he owed the company $340,000 for the eight months he used the account after leaving. (The terms of who owned Kravitz’s corporate Twitter followers was not spelled out either in a PhoneDog policy or employment agreement.)

The question at hand: Is this “cyber taking” similar to the old fashioned way of stealing the company’s paper customer list?

Last week we learned that a settlement was reached in the case. Details were confidential, but PhoneDog did give Kravitz custody of all 17,000 followers. (PhoneDog LLC v. Kravitz, N.D. Cal., settlement announced 12/3/12)

I’d tweet only one word, “Ouch!”

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

1. Update your social media policy today. Does your company even have one? If not, get right on it. If so, review it to make sure it addresses all social media possibilities involving Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Spoke and all other social media outlets (including those not even invented yet). One of the problems here is that PhoneDog did not address social media issues with employees until it was too late. This lack of foresight creates costly litigation.

2. Spell out ownership. Make sure your social media policy clearly spells out who owns the corporate followers … the company does. Be clear that the use of the company’s name in a handle or cyber address can only be used during the course of employment and is not considered a personal account.

Be sure to have your social media policy reviewed by an attorney who concentrates in social media to ensure it is compliant with all current and emerging federal and state laws. This is a new territory of employment law and the sky is the limit on how many employment issues employers now have to take into consideratio

3. Change passwords. All corporate accounts should be protected by company controlled passwords. If an employee leaves or threatens to go it will be easier to change the social media’s site’s password if that information is monitored by the organization and not controlled by the employee.

Don’t be blindsided because we hardly use paper any more. Just because an employee cannot touch all your corporate assets does not mean they can’t take it with them when they go.

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