Q: We hired a social media expert six months ago to beef up our marketing. "Sam" created Twitter and Facebook accounts for our company.
We invested a lot of money in Sam and taught him about our industry so he could represent us. He created accounts that had lots of bells and whistles, but once the accounts were created, he didn't seem willing to do anything other than surf the internet. Whenever we asked Sam what he was working on, he claimed he was researching.
We ultimately terminated Sam and three weeks later hired a new individual to take over our web presence. Whenever our new employee tried to open up our Facebook and Twitter accounts, he learned Sam redirected the Twitter account and deleted the Facebook account.
This totally fries us, as we paid Sam a great deal of money and now have nothing to show for it. How does he get away with this?
A: He got away with it by doing it and because you lacked safeguards to prevent it.
Employers generally own any work product created by an employee if the employee created the products at the work site and on work hours. Because employees may not realize this and because an employee may legitimately expect that some products belong to the employee or both the employee and employer, it helps to clarify both parties' understanding in an employment agreement.
The agreement might state, "As part of your job, you will create and maintain employer-focused Twitter and Facebook accounts. Because we pay you to do so, you don't get to take these accounts with you when you leave. This means you can't change the password or the account name nor can you delete or divert the accounts."
In a recent case, PhoneDog, a company proving cellphone-related information, blogs, forums, news, reviews and how-to tips, filed suit against former employee, Noah Kravitz, who tweeted under the handle @PhoneDog_Noah. When Kravitz quit, he changed the account name to @noahkravitz. PhoneDog's suit alleged they invested considerable money into growing their followers, fans and brand awareness through social media and that Kravitz stole company property when he renamed and took the account.
PhoneDog's suit asks the court to order Kravitz to turn over the Twitter account's password and pay damages of $2.50 per month for each of its 17,000 followers, a total of $340,000 for the eight months Kravitz held the account after his departure.
Kravitz countered that he created the Twitter account for personal as well as professional tweeting and never signed a contract giving his former employer a say concerning the account.
Given the time any legal battle requires, even if PhoneDog wins its suit, they lose. Twitter account followers may lose in PhoneDog, or if they like Kravitz and connect with his view of "it's mine," backlash against PhoneDog.
In another case, decided Oct. 19, a New York Court granted an injunction requiring a departed employee to turn over passwords to her former employer's websites, blogs and Twitter, ruling that lack of ac-cess to and control of company-related social media could constitute irreparable harm. In this case, the employer had a social media policy outlining that social media belonged to the company.
Meanwhile, Twitter itself weighed in to say that an account's tweets are owned by their authors -- the users. Further, whether an employer claims ownership of a social media account or not, they cannot "own" the relationship between users and the account -- because, unlike customers, Twitter users aren't making purchases when they tweet, and tweets, by their nature, are public.
-- Lynne Curry is a management trainer, consultant and president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. E-mail her at email@example.com.