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Is it theft if you personalise & retain an official social media account when you leave an organisation?

One of the legal and ethical dilemmas organisations are beginning to struggle with is the ownership of social media accounts.

When a staff member creates and uses a social media account solely or mainly for official organisational purposes they can build a large following over months or years based entirely on their paid work activities.

However are they entitled to take that account, and the accumulated goodwill it holds, with them when they leave?

This might seem like a trivial question, however the followers and reputation built by a social media account may be no different to the brand name value that organisations such as Google and Coca-Cola count on their balance sheets.

Almost every organisation that deals with the public values its name and reputation with the public as an asset alongside the physical property of the business.

Whether you think of Starbucks, Microsoft, Ford or Joe’s Mowing Service, the name and reputation of the business, as well as its contact list (like followers or Likes), has an asset value.

I believe this is also true for digital accounts, and there are cases going to court at the moment around the world where individuals who took an official social media account with them are being sued for the asset value by their employers.

One such case last year, as reported in Sean Clark’s blog, involved a company called Phonedog, where a former employee, Noah Kravitz, tried to take a Twitter account with him by changing the name of the account from @Phonedog_Noah to @NoahKravitz.

The account had 17,000 followers and Phonedog took him to court for the value of $2.50 per follower per month ($42,500/mth), calling the followers a customer list, with the value attributed to the cost associated with growing and maintaining the list.

You can read more about this at What’s a Twitter follower really worth.

So let’s consider this in an Australian context. There are several senior public servants who use Twitter for official purposes – using their actual name in the account.

In particular Hank Jongen (@HankJongen) from the Department of Human Services and Sandi Logan (@Sandihlogan) from the Department of Immigration, whose accounts were primarily established and are operated as official communications channels for their agencies.

Besides these is another senior public servant, John Sheridan from AGIMO in the Department of Finance, whose Twitter account (@sherro58) is used for official purposes, but also for personal use – it was not primarily established or is operated mainly as an official communications channel.

My view would be that both Hank and Sandi’s accounts are organisational assets, whereas John’s account is his personal asset that he lends to the agency – similar to how, when I worked in government, I occasionally retweeted official agency tweets to bring them to the attention of a wider audience (my larger follower base), but my account was never an official agency channel.

Based on the model used by PhoneDog ($2.50 per follower per month), the value of Hank and Sandi’s accounts are as follows:

Account Followers Value/month Value/year
@HankJongen 807 $2,017 $24,210
@SandiHLogan 3,912 $9,780 $117,360

Now the values are based on the number of followers remaining static, which is unlikely, and the actual value of a follower may vary based on the customer relationship. However there is a real value for these relationships, which is a real asset for their organisations – particularly when trying to communicate or defend complex positions.

In all the cases I’ve illustrated above the public servants behave very ethically, and I would not expect this to change, so I don’t see them as risks to their organisations of leaving and taking their followers with them.

However this will not always be the case for all social media accounts.

In fact there is a recent example I can think of where I think the ethics are much grayer and which may even require an investigation.

This is in relation to the former QLD Labor Premier, Anna Bligh.

Anna was an enthusiastic adopter of social media for engaging citizens – and I applaud her for this – however I don’t know if there has been much consideration of the asset value of the account she used to Tweet as the QLD Premier, or whether she had the right to rename this as ‘@AnnaMBligh‘ and take it with her when she resigned from politics.

Let’s run through the history….

Anna became premier in 2007 and continued to use the Twitter account she’d been using up to that point, renaming it ‘‘.

My view is that the language and manner of the launch of this account makes it clear that it was to be the property of the Government of Queensland. An official Twitter account to be used by Anna and all Queensland Premiers following her. It was not to be the personal account of Anna Bligh (who already had one) or the property of the QLD Labor party.

However, following the recent Queensland election, where the Labor party lost government and Anna, while retaining her seat decided to resign from the QLD parliament, Anna did not hand this account over to the incoming Premier, Campbell Newman.

Instead she renamed the account as @AnnaMBligh and has continued to use it as her personal account since the election.

Meanwhile her former personal account (currently named @Premier_Bligh) has remained inactive since May 2009.

The incoming Premier has repeated the initial and, in my view, quite legitimate steps taken by Anna Bligh. His personal account @Campbell_Newman is now inactive, and he created a new Twitter account on March 26, naming it the same as former official QLD Premier account @theqldpremier.

So it all balances out – or does it?

The Twitter account that Anna Bligh designated the “official Queensland Premier’s twitter account”, that she now operates as a personal Twitter account, currently has 30,773 followers.

The new official Twitter account that Campbell Newman has designated for the Premier has only 4,496 followers.

That’s a difference of 26,277 followers that Anna accumulated over three years while tweeting officially on behalf of the government.

Let’s go back to the Phonedog case… If we consider these Twitter followers as a ‘customer list’ (for the purposes of official government engagement), we can attribute a lost value to the QLD Government – and thereby QLD citizens – associated with the costs of growing and maintaining the list.

Let’s use that $2.50 value per month again – noting that a court would have to test whether this is the right value for each follower of any particular official Twitter account.

On this basis the difference of 26,277 followers is worth $65,692 per month to the QLD Government.

Ergo, the cost to Queensland of Anna Bligh taking the official Premier’s Twitter account home with her for personal use, and denying its use to the Government of Queensland, is currently running at a rate of $65,692 per month.

The maximum potential cost to Queensland to-date, assuming the official QLD Premier account has had the same level off followers since start of May 2009 to end of April 2012 (36 months), would be $2,364,930.

I estimate a more reasonable cost would be in the $1-$1.5 million range – based on $2.50 per follower per month.

So is this actually theft?

Should it be considered similar to a Minister taking home their office furniture for personal use after they lost office?

That’s for governments and courts to decide for certain.

However it is undeniable that the ‘official Queensland Premier’s twitter account”, its followers and their relationship with the Government have been removed from Government control and now reside in the hands of a private citizen, to do with as they will.

Other organisations, both public and private sector organisations really do need to think about this example in their own context:

  • Are your official social media accounts assets?
  • What asset/brand value should you place on them?
  • What should you do if a staff member leaves and takes one, or more, accounts with them?
  • What guidance or policies do you need in place to prevent and manage this?

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Corey McCarren

This is definitely stuff that needs to be written up in contracts. If I worked for an organization, and they wanted me to use my personal Twitter handle for business, I’d want it written in the contract that the account is still my own. I think Noah of Phonedog is clearly wrong, as it appears the account was created specifically for work purposes.

Robert Giggey

There might be a difference between accounts clearly linked to an individual and general accounts, e.g. @Phonedog_Noah vs. @phonedog. The difference being that I would assume that the value to the follower in the case of an individual account is based on both the individual managing the account and their relationship with the organization. This may matter b/c when that person leaves the organization (or role) those followers solely concerned with that individuals relationship with the organization can stop following and find someone else within the organization to follow (e.g. successor) if they exist. Social Media (or Communications) policies could at least address having organizational accounts remain the property of the organization.

Charles A. Ray

These are very good points. I have a somewhat similar situation. I already had my Facebook account and established a Twitter account. Used at first for personal purposes, it was quickly discovered that I had such a following it was to the organization’s advantage to use my accounts to get certain information out. When I retire later this year, however, they will revert back to me as they were mine orginally. Had, however, I established them at the agency’s urging and used them primarily for agency purposes, I would feel obligated to leave them with the agency and establish my own accounts separately. As we get more into use of social media in work, this will, I fear, happen more and more. It deserves further study, both in and out of agencies.