Who owns social media followers?

Posted by Tony Hallett on09.01.2012
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There seem to be a lot of big name journalists moving around from one employer to another. I’m not sure it’s any more than the usual rate but it raises new dilemmas in the age of social media. To put it bluntly, who owns the followers people acquire?

Last summer this crystallised around the departure of political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg from the BBC to ITV. She had previously used the Twitter handle @BBCLauraK but upon arriving at the commercial broadcaster she didn’t start over but renamed her account @ITVLauraK (listen to journalism.co.uk’s interview with her on this here).

For one thing, it isn’t as usual as you might imagine for hacks to incorporate the name of their employer in a social media ID. I’d put the figure at less than 10 per cent of working journalists. Some have and live with a split personality online. Retweeting, in Twitter’s case, from one account to another is common in those cases.

Here are three litmus tests to see if the right thing is being done in such a situation:

1. Does either employer have guidelines on an employee taking a social ID with them after they leave? The dreaded Social Media Policy is a document that frequently raises its head these days, though it can still fall somewhere in broader HR guidelines.

This is on many levels a tricky exercise in running an organisation – or what some might call bureaucracy. Without going in to the details, it generally means crafting something that has to work on a number of levels – for those with followers of various types on various platforms, plus HR and legal implications. Sales heads, for example, might be concerned by an employee walking out with a database of client contacts or – a problem with current employees – those details being visible to competitors over things like LinkedIn.

2. There is legal recourse. Employers and employees can find themselves involved in litigation whether a social media policy exists or not. And this is certainly not just about Twitter.

In the US last year a company launched a legal bid to stop an employee using her LinkedIn account after she had left the company and to get a hold of her contact list (via TheNextWeb). And this brings me neatly to the third test

3. How your customers or audience will view any social media wrangling?

In the case of Kuenssberg BBC/ITV, things went fairly smoothly, considering the opportunity for controversy. But if a major name ends up fighting a former employer over such a thing – and when as an individual you have 50,000+ followers, who wouldn’t put up a fight? It will probably be quite public and it probably won’t look good.

You can argue that a large number of followers equally means an organisation should fight for ownership. I’ve written elsewhere about whether we tend to be readers of writers or publications. But who did those followers sign up to listen to? If they wanted a brand view aren’t there separate accounts for that? I’d encourage all titles and channels to have separate accounts, while being careful not to have too many.

But here’s why employers shouldn’t go down the aggressive route to wrest control of a former worker’s followers: it’s mutually assured destruction. Not only does it hurt the leaving journalist, it doesn’t help the media owner.

What would the BBC have done with @BBCLauraK in her absence? Looked in the phone book under ‘K’ for another Laura to employ, as I’ve heard one well-known technology company does? It comes across as petty.

This is the answer, I’ve come to realise: for individual media professionals, a single, non-brand-related ID on each social channel makes the most sense in the long-term. As a media owner, that means you might lose a star reporter with 10,000 followers – but you can always go out and hire someone with 15,000.

Most follower tugs of war don’t involve household names, on our screens every night. They quite often involve journalists with hundreds of followers, often acquired with much more diligence and sweat than someone with a prominent column or fronting a major TV show.

They shouldn’t have to start over and over.

 

This post also appeared on The Media Briefing as The social media tug of war between employers and staff – who owns your followers?

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