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Using Twitter on Behalf of Your Employer? You Better Watch Out!




First, we hope you had a Merry Christmas and are easing your way back into work with an easy “wind down” week. We highly recommend it if possible :-).

To keep you alert, here is a cautionary tale to end the year on. It involves an employee, the Twitter account they kept while working for a company, an “agreement” and the logical end to all things uncertain, a lawsuit.

The New York Times tells us about Noah Kravitz formerly of Phonedog.com

The question is: Can a company cash in on, and claim ownership of, an employee’s social media account, and if so, what does that mean for workers who are increasingly posting to Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus during work hours?

A lawsuit filed in July could provide some answers.

In October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer who lives in Oakland, Calif., quit his job at a popular mobile phone site, Phonedog.com, after nearly four years. The site has two parts — an e-commerce wing, which sells phones, and a blog.

While at the company, Mr. Kravitz, 38, began writing on Twitter under the name Phonedog_Noah, and over time, had amassed 17,000 followers. When he left, he said, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for posting occasionally.

The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Mr. Kravitz said by telephone.

Seems innocent and friendly enough (although I don’t get the request and the acceptance of the request to continue to post occasionally for the company, do you? The gist is that the employee had amassed a significant following using his name and his employer’s name but it seems as if the lines had been blurred as well since Mr. Kravitz felt that his following was indeed his and initially, at least, his former employer was fine with that. Then …

And so he began writing as NoahKravitz, keeping all his followers under that new handle. But eight months after Mr. Kravitz left the company, PhoneDog sued, saying the Twitter list was a customer list, and seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000.

Ouch. As is always the case in instances like this there are two sides of the story.

PhoneDog Media declined to comment for this article except for this statement: “The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of PhoneDog Media L.L.C. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”

Now we are not here to argue the law of this case. There is little precedent to go on anyway as this entire area of law is barely old enough to be considered its own space yet. What needs to be considered by readers of Marketing Pilgrim is that no matter if you are a company allowing employees to use Twitter on your behalf or you are an employee developing a following using your company as the springboard you better have thought this through completely.

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Handshake agreements and informal “Oh sure it’s no problem!” reassurances aren’t worth much in this space. Consider the very real possibility of that person that you as an employee made that handshake agreement with leaving the company and his / her replacement not giving a rip about what the previous person “promised you”.

I would hate to see the law squeeze a lot of the fun out of social media in the business space but it is quickly becoming apparent that informal arrangements are risky. Are you willing to take that risk?

What is your thought about a case like this one? Who is ultimately in control of this account in your non-legal opinion? Plenty to ponder as we wind down 2011 and head into the rapidly changing future of social media and business.

  • Emagehtmai

    I’m confused. Exactly what us he accused of doing? The article doesn’t make it clear. He quits the company, has an “informal” arrangement with the company to post good things on their behalf every now and then, and next thing you know, the company is suing. Even the company’s statement doesn’t maker it clear.

  • http://www.topix.com/forum/city/chandler-az/TT7R3MSDF0I611A4T Rita Lawrence

    A very interesting article. It may not be an employer it could be a religious organization, social group etc. and the expectation is that they own you! I do not have a link via name to anyone but retweet which I think I’ll reconsider.

  • http://elainefogel.net Elaine Fogel

    Frank, this story really underscores the need for a separate work account when representing an employer. Once the employment ends, so should the posting to that account.

    I’m not a lawyer, but it makes sense from a branding perspective. When an employee posts on behalf of a company or organization, s/he should do it while maintaining the organization’s brand standards.

  • http://socialdentalnetwork.com Chris

    Sure seems shortsighted, careless, and downright stupid – on the part of both parties.

    Either way, the account is property of the employer right>? Probably even if it was established before employment began if they illustrate usage and scope primarily directed toward company.

    Rita – Good point about other orgs too!

    If our computers, phones, texts, and emails all fall under company ownership, wouldn’t twitter too – or any social media acct?

    One for the lawyers I guess.

    Simple planning and forethought can easily protect everyone….how much will it cost smb’s in attorney fees to draft such a simple plan?

    Attorneys and simple plans…like jumbo shrimp and harmonious discord!

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    This is one of the shortcomings of being a “hip, cool, young and fly by the seat of your pants’ business that many Internet businesses think is the right way to go these days. No matter how fast and flexible you need your business to be there will always be processes and procedures that should be taken to protect everyone. A simple handshake WILL NOT do! Heck, often times legal docs aren’t enough but they are better than nothing. I know about this stuff the hard way so if Phone Dog was dumb enough to allow this to happen and this guy thought that his former employers handshake was good enough then they are both morons.

    The courts will figure this out but if you took the time to do the right thing this would never be an issue. Oh, but Phone Dog is a such a cool young company…..yeah right.

  • http://www.CPMR.biz Karen L. Jefferson

    I tweet on behalf of my employer with the assumption that I am speaking to THEIR audience. If/when I leave, I might tweet “This is my last tweet as @KarenCPMRCSP am changing handle to @lulu’s_LoHi Follow @myemployer if you want to keep current with them”.

    Alternatively, customers are more loyal to their salesperson than they are to the company, so if PhoneDog is all that (and a bag of chips), then @noahkravitz could send out a tweet saying “To keep current on PhoneDog, please follow them at @PhoneDog thanks for following”. And whatever customers jump to them, PhoneDog gets to keep. And whoever sticks with @noahkravitz he gets to keep. No harm. No foul.

    Does not seem litigation worthy.

    Given the results when searching for phonedog in twitter, seems that @PhoneDog is in the #doghouse.