A company’s social media page, profile and accounts (and its followers and other connections) are generally considered to be valuable business assets. Recent court decisions illustrate the importance of clear policies and procedures to address ownership and appropriate use of business-related social media assets.
While most businesses recognize the importance of maintaining a minimum Internet presence, an increasing number of businesses are attempting to impact consumers where they congregate most: in social media. The benefits of maintaining an active social media presence include developing loyal relationships with customers, leveraging those relationships into quantifiable, networked campaigns, and refining your brand with niche audiences. Because of both the company resources spent developing these channels as well as their potential value/return, it is important to remember that social media accounts are company assets and should be protected accordingly through policies and procedures, as would any other company intellectual property.
While major brands often farm out social media management and content creation to marketing firms, small or medium sized business often do not have this financial flexibility. Accordingly, chances are a member of management of the employees, takes on this role. In that case, with both personal and business interests in the same sphere it is especially crucial set clear expectations and boundaries around social media responsibilities in the workplace and the ownership of your business’ accounts and content.
As a recent case in Texas (In re CTLI, LLC, 2015 Banker. LEXIS 1117 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 2015)) makes clear, when it comes to social media, the line between personal and professional can be blurry and when companies fail, or when partnerships falter, ownership of social media accounts can result in costly litigation.
The dispute in CTLI centered on ownership of the Facebook account for a firearms business. The account was run by one of the business’ owners who posted a mixture of professional content promoting the business, and personal content reflecting his interests, activities and opinions. When the business filed for Chapter 11 protection, the social media-savvy former owner refused to relinquish control of the Facebook account, claiming that the amount of time, goodwill and his own personality that he had invested into developing the account entitled him to ownership. The U.S. Bankruptcy court ultimately disagreed and ruled that the account was property of the business but not before wading through the thorny issues of personal privacy, contract interpretation relating to Facebook’s terms and conditions, and the separation of personal and business assets.
Some important lessons for your business to keep in mind:
- Have a written Technology Use and Social Media Policy in place for all of your employees to read and sign. These policies should include parameters for appropriate uses of company technology, guidelines on how to discuss your company online and in social media (even when your employees are using their own personal accounts), and clear definitions concerning who owns what when it comes to devices and accounts.
- While interacting with consumers can be great for business consider prohibiting your social media managers from sending direct/private messages from your customer-facing business accounts. While you may permit employees to send personal emails from their work computers, this is very different than sending a personal message emanating from your company’s branded Facebook or Twitter account.
- Social media marketing allows for a more nuanced line between personal and professional content. Something that you might consider to be a personal comment could be seen in court as an attempt to integrate your business’ brand with your target customers or your local community. Just because you are posting casual or personal items from your official business account does not mean that the accounts belong to you or your employees.
- An effective social media manager may be able to generate hundreds or thousands of followers or fans for your business, but it is important for them to know that it is the business, and not the employee, who ultimately owns those accounts and the followers that go with it, no matter how much of themselves and their personality the employee has poured into developing the accounts.
- Maintain a record of all of your social media account credentials like account names, user handles, and passwords. Employees should be prohibited from altering these credentials or using their own passwords. In the event that you need to remove an employee’s access this will help you avoid being in the position of demanding passwords which the employee may be also using for private, personal accounts.
If you need help drafting an effective Technology Use or Social Media Policy for your business or simply have questions about the benefits and risks of leveraging social media to help your business grow, contact OlenderFeldman LLP.