In a post today on The Wall, Tom Callow addressed the tricky question of ownership of journalists’ Twitter accounts. If employees use a Twitter ID that combines their names with those of their employers’ brands, whose account is it? The issue is more complicated than you might think, and isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. Until journalists and their employers alike see Twitter and other social media accounts as equivalent in importance to other brand channels and manage them accordingly, the friction will only increase.
What prompted Callow’s post was the news last month that the BBC’s departing chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg, soon to join BBC’s rival ITV, has renamed her Twitter account from “@BBCLauraK” to “@ITVLauraK.” Along with its reporter, the BBC has now lost her 60,000 Twitter followers as well.
As Callow noted in a previous and prescient post on ownership of Twitter names, there are essentially three account-naming options for someone who tweets in connection with an employer:
- Tweet under a corporate name, like @comcastcares.
- Tweet under a personal name, like @johnbethune.
- Tweet under a hybrid name that combines personal and corporate brands, like @BBCLauraK.
There’s little controversy about the first option—it’s obviously a corporate brand that no sensible individual would claim. The second might seem so clearly personal that, as Callow says, “there is no way a brand could seek to claim ownership of such a profile.”
The third option—both personal and corporate—may turn out to be a rich field for litigation. If ownership isn’t specified by contract, can either employer or employee say with authority who owns the Twitter handle? Or who, more specifically, owns the right to its followers? Kuenssberg clearly believes she does. By changing the name of the account, she may not be claiming ownership of the hybrid name, but her assumption appears to be that she owns the account. Callow, however, thinks the BBC has a “decent ownership claim” to it. To judge from the fascinating variety of comments on his post, there is little consensus either way. (And the BBC itself, so far as I can determine, has raised no objections.)
In her coverage of the matter last month, The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss rightly remarked that “setting up an account that blends professional and personal is a risky move.” But blending the professional and personal is exactly what social media is all about. If a brand wants to remain relevant, and its editors want to have successful careers, both sides will have to come to terms with that risk and learn to manage it.
The first step might be to think of a Twitter account not as a marketing tool or some supplementary appendage to a publication, but as a separate channel for the brand in the same way a magazine is. Now suppose that a publisher named a magazine after one of its editors—the John Bethune magazine, say. I can guarantee you that the editor, in this case at least, would negotiate a detailed agreement on the use of and the rights to his name. I’m certain Readers Digest and Rachael Ray did just that when launching Every Day with Rachael Ray (thanks to @Glenn1126 for the real-life example).
A Twitter account should be treated the same way. While extensive contract negotiations over a hybrid Twitter name would be overkill, both editor and employer should come to a clear agreement about who owns what rights. A smart employer will not claim all of them. Without some ownership, an employee won’t be inclined to put heart and soul into it. By the same token, a wise employee will understand that part of the appeal of a hybrid identity comes from the employer’s brand, and that the employer should have meaningful rights as well.
That’s one less-than-elegant solution. A better one, I think, is this: don’t use hybrid Twitter names. Like a magazine, a Twitter account needs a clear and unambiguous identity. Brands that want total control can use functional names like @BBCPoliticalCorr, as one of Callow’s commenters suggested. Brands that want the greatest value from Twitter accounts will give up control and encourage the use of personal accounts. Trying to have it both ways is a sure way of getting neither.