As I’ve discussed in the past, new social spaces and interactions are changing so fast that they force us to adapt and develop new protocols on the fly. One issue that has been hotly contested, and which has yet to be satisfactorily resolved is how we clearly delineate  between our personal and professional online personas, particularly those of us who both live and work on the web.

We still don’t have this anywhere near to being sorted. A recent post by Malkuth Damkar about the way in which Twitter makes celebrities of us all makes the point that people who would otherwise escape notice are often judged and gossiped about on Twitter in a way that’s disproportionate; as though by conversing publically, we’ve abandoned our right to privacy and respect. Not to mention the recent furore concering hapless British Twitterer Paul Chambers who jokingly threatened to blow up an airport ,then found himself jobless and facing criminal charges, which is an entirely separate can of worms.

Media and marketing website Mumbrella recently covered an exchange on Twitter between a journalist (of sorts) and the personal account of someone working in PR, as evidence of a sometimes tricky relationship between the two disciplines.

While naturally journalists often choose to ignore context and nuance for the sake of a good headline, this seemed a particularly unfair conflation of public domain and public interest.  The journalist has a relatively large public profile and is employed by a media organisation, arguably making her tweets our business; the other person is not – and public or no, her personal Twitter account exists independently of her employer.

It served as an excellent example of this rather messy grey area. I’ve personally hired people because of their significant digital presence – people who came to my attention because of the way in which they communicated online and their degree of influence. And I’ve been more than happy for these people to use their talents for the good of the company, for example by sharing content to their personal networks, using data gathered from their accounts etc.

By creating a social media usage policy that, reasonably enough, prohibited any mention of confidential or sensitive information, I could, as a boss, be reasonably sure my team were clear about what would be appropriate to share via both the corporate and personal accounts and allowed common sense to guide their behaviour in the grey areas on an ad-hoc basis.

But I think with hindsight I sometimes got it wrong. On one occasion I effectively muzzled a team member who had a long standing online stoush with another public figure, arguing that as he linked to the company website from his Twitter bio, this feud would reflect poorly on the company.  I now think that I should have suggested he remove the link, and made clear he was operating under his own auspices and his views were not shared by his employer.

Non-celebrities with large Twitter followings and extensive personal networks have generally developed them through communicating interesting content in an expressive manner, with a distinct voice and point of view.  Crucially, this influence is built up over time, not on the company dime.

By allowing employees to use their personal influence to share content, engage communities and achieve corporate objectives while simultaneously restricting the individual’s right to express a contentious view or enter into critical discourse, the company is attempting to have its cake and eat it.   Not only is this problematic from an ethical standpoint, but it’s also ultimately illogical: a toothless tiger can only maintain its edge for so long before the social network begins to sense inauthenticity and drift away.  I for one choose not to follow people I feel to be little more than an RSS yes-machine.

Drawing the line is essential. My suggestions – and this is a work in progress, subject to review and evolution – is that professional and personal accounts need to be separate. If you refer to your employer in your bio, your account is going to be inextricably linked to their profile, at least in public perception.  So don’t risk it.  Unless there’s a scenario in which your boss will compensate you for allowing the company to bask in your reflected glory – which could mean attributing a dollar value to influence, or specifically stating in your contract that your network is an asset the company will be able to use during the life of your contract with them – then be very wary of using your own account as another channel for sharing corporate content – whether on Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else. A profile that’s specifically you @your company might be one way of resolving this, or by using shared corporate accounts.

Because nobody wants to end up like Tennessee Ernie…

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store…

5 thoughts on “Owing your soul to the company store: does your employer own your Twitter account?

  1. The problem with that suggested policy is that it’s naive about how journalists would interpret someone’s personal vs professional persona.

    “I’m tweeting in a personal capacity” may be a disclaimer, but it’s not a cloak of invisibility.

    If what you say is relevant to your day job and you are identifiable, then you need to treat Twitter as you would any other broadcast medium.

    If you don’t want your tweets public, then either protect them, don’t do it in your own name, or don’t tweet stuff that could get you into trouble.

    That doesn’t mean your employer owns your Twitter account. But it does mean the sensible employee doesn’t publicly pick fights with those with whom their company may have business – or if they do, they shouldn’t be surprised if that target reacts and it reaches the public domain.


    Tim – Mumbrella

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  3. If you put your photo and name up there, along with the fact that you work for Company X, then anything you say can reasonably be taken as coming from or reflecting on that company.

    If your Twitter feed (or blog or whatever website) is *personal* then don’t plaster your work details all over it. Don’t mix in tweets on how much you drank last weekend with updates on your company’s new product news.

    It’s really not hard to have “barrycrocker” and “barrycrockerHP” as two separate Twitter accounts. It’s not like they charge (yet anyway).

  4. This is the way I see it, basically if an employee does something good the employer gets some credit, but if he does something bad, the company doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. Depending, of course, on what the company considers good or bad.

    Regardless whether you’re on the Internet or other media, I think this issue, if it’s an issue at all, is a long-debated [or just pondered] since there was employment-ism. Office rules and ethics are not something new and it used to be [and often still] extends to the personal domain of an employee.

    The question now is the scope of the damage done. I think it is somewhat unfair for, as you put it, a company to have its cake and eat it.

    But I do see your point. It’s not easy to run a successful business and have an employee going loose cannon on you.

    The solution, a policy if needed, would not be a cookie cutter one. Like any other company rules, it should be clearly communicated [corny I know] and understood. Requiring a separate social network account will ultimately create a ‘toothless tiger’.

    From my personal point of view, a company’s website link on a social network page does not make him or her a spokesperson of the company. I have always understood a personal view as a personal view and the person just happens to work at ABC company.

    I guess the bottom line is there’s always risk involve if you want higher return.

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