Should you link your social media presence to your employer?

Here are some pros and cons of associating yourself online with the company you work for.

Associating your social media profile with your company may seem like a win/win strategy. Doing so can boost your personal brand, and it could offer similar advantages to your company. But there are important questions for both you and your employer to consider first.

The advantages

Linking yourself with your employer on social media can enhance your personal brand, validate your expertise, and attract people to follow and interact with you.

Your company can also benefit from having employee advocates who are active on social media as thought leaders. Naming or tagging the employees who handle social channels humanizes a brand, makes the company’s communications seem more genuine, and boosts good will.

Potential cons

The above sounds good for you and your company, right? Before you jump in, though, there are two important questions to consider:

1. Who owns your linked social media activity?

It may seem obvious that social profiles made for the brand remain the property of the company, whereas personal profiles created by an employee belong to the individual. Ownership gets trickier when personal and employer profiles are blended.

Take the disagreement between Noah Kravitz and his former employer, PhoneDog.com. Kravitz created the Twitter account Phonedog_Noah to tweet on behalf of PhoneDog, gaining more than 17,000 followers. He left the company on good terms in October 2010 after four years of employment. Kravitz kept the Twitter account, changing the handle to @NoahKravitz and continuing to make personal use of the profile.

PhoneDog sued Kravitz eight months later, claiming that the Twitter account and followers were a customer list and property of the company; it sought damages of $340,000 ($2.50 a month for eight months for each customer).

The court battle was closely watched for its potential to set legal precedent for social media ownership and because the case included claims regarding the value of each social media follower. The parties settled the case in late 2012 with Kravitz keeping sole custody of the @NoahKravitz account, leaving key questions in the case undecided by the court.

Another social media ownership dispute involved LinkedIn. Linda Eagle, during her time as CEO of Edcomm, created a LinkedIn account to promote herself and the company. She shared her personal LinkedIn password with her assistant, who helped managed her profile. When Eagle and Edcomm parted ways, the company used the password to take control of the LinkedIn profile. The company replaced Eagle’s information with the name and picture of her successor. Eagle sued to regain her account and recover damages.

A federal court in Pennsylvania dismissed Eagle’s lawsuit, finding that Edcomm had not violated federal law with its actions, but the federal court allowed her case to proceed under other claims in state court. Eagle prevailed at the state level in March 2013, proving unauthorized use of name, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of publicity against Edcomm. The state court, however, awarded no monetary damages to Eagle.

These controversies reveal that employees and employers should not make assumptions regarding ownership of linked social media profiles.

2. Are you willing to be a 24/7 virtual spokesperson for your company?

It is common practice for employees to put a disclaimer that their opinions and comments are their own. This is a digital fig leaf. Employees who associate their profiles with their employer run the risk that an out of context comment, off-color joke, or awkward picture could draw unwanted attention from customers, partners, co-workers, or management.

Many of the instances where folks run into trouble with their employer online involve clearly dumb or impolitic behavior, but not always. What may seem like a harmless exchange between friends can spark controversy.

Should you link your social media presence with your employer? Should your boss let you?

For the social media savvy worker, associating your profile with your employer has benefits, but may land you in a legal gray area of ownership issues and could curtail your after-hours personal privacy and speech.

For companies, talented employees can be powerful advocates on social media. But there are lots of other potential issues and problems that can arise when employees combine personal and professional expression on social networks.

Before comingling social identities, both companies and workers should talk through issues of ownership and the risks associated with blending personal with professional elements on online profiles. Better yet, put things in writing. Employers and employees should agree on thorny social media ownership and behavior guidelines in advance to avoid potential future misunderstandings and disputes.

Steven Wolpern is a high-tech communications professional and writer. Connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his website and blog.

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