All your followers are belong to us?

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion15 Comments

In our latest hiring round, I’m seeing something new: candidates with existing social media networks. If we hire one of these candidates, we will need to figure out how social media participation as a Scriptorium employee can co-exist with established personal blogs, Twitter accounts, and the like.

Blogs

Blogs seem like the easier problem to address, as we expect consultants to blog at least occasionally, and generally about work-related topics. I think we can fairly easily define a set of blog topics that need to go on the Scriptorium site; other content can stay with the personal blog. For example, the following would go on our site:

  • Trends in technical communication
  • Ideas or opinions sparked by work

10 ducklings!

Twitter

Here’s where things are going to get dicey. The “cleanest” approach would be to have a new consultant create a new Twitter account and use that for professional tweeting. But the loss of existing followers makes that impractical at best.

It is reasonable for Scriptorium (or any employer) to make demands about an existing Twitter account as a condition of employment? Can we afford not to do so?

I think our policy will have to be a variation of:

“People will know you work for us, so you are representing us even in the social media channels that you established before coming to work here. Therefore, you need to be careful about what you publish.”

Next interesting question: If you are in technical communication and we hire you, I expect that you will use your existing Twitter leverage to support Scriptorium’s social media efforts. Is that reasonable?

What about a separation?

Blog posts written for scriptorium.com on company time are clearly our intellectual property. But, what if someone leaves the company? Do we keep their posts on the site? (So far, we have.) Do we keep their name on the posts or change it to a generic “posted by Scriptorium”? (I can see the arguments for either approach—I’m especially concerned about potential confusion if a former employee’s name is prominent within our blog archives.)

What if a departing employee wants to move or copy their posts to a personal blog?

Am I just borrowing trouble here?

I can’t find a precedent.

Sometimes, being out on the bleeding edge hurts. I looked around for recommendations in this area and couldn’t find anything. There are, of course, social media policies, but they’re mostly about employees who start to blog, how employees might tweet, and keeping Facebook profiles relatively family-friendly. I couldn’t find anything how existing social media activity might be assimilated (uh-oh) with corporate social media activity.

There is an interesting article from 2009 about Jeremiah Owyang, who left Forrester (big analyst firm) to become a partner in the Altimeter Group. In summary: He used social media to build his industry visibility and thus his personal brand, which then gave him options outside the friendly confines of Forrester.

The resumé of the future

Will we see resumé headings like this?

Joe Consultant
@twitterhandle (1,200 followers)
blog: joetheconsultant.example.com (10,000 unique visits per month)
1911 Evans Road, Cary, North Carolina 27513
phone: 919-481-2701
email: joetheconsultant@example.com

What are your thoughts?

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

Twitter

Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

15 Comments on “All your followers are belong to us?”

  1. Thank you, Sarah, for a very enlightening perspective from the bleeding edge. I’ve been blogging and twittering about tech writing under the assumption that employers (past, present and future) also read it and judge me by it. But I hadn’t yet considered that my public contributions would be negotiable in a job interview!

    Here’s my take on the issue:
    – I think it’s reasonable to have a general policy in an employment contract that employee and employer are loyal to one another in public statements, incl. social media. No dirty laundry in public – both ways!
    – When I refer publicly to past professional experiences, it will be impossible to deduce to which company/client they refer.
    – I’d be fine with posting on the company blog instead of my own (hoping it’s as professional and instructive as my own, and not just sales drivel).
    – I think it’s unreasonable to demand that I leverage my social network participation for the benefit of the company. But as long as both sides are happy with me working there, I’ll probably do it anyway…
    – After separation (on reasonably good terms), I would expect the company to keep my posts and my name up. I think readers can be expected to understand the concept of history and that stuff changes over time. On bad terms, I wouldn’t be surprised to see my posts and name gone…

    I think this whole issue is generally very important for technical writers, many of whom have experience with and rely on both corporate and self-employment. Working for a tech comm consultancy is a special case where personal and corporate social media activities are closely aligned. But what if I work for a company whose (main) product is not documentation?

  2. Amazing as it might seem, Sarah, you’ve entered the world of Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. Like LeBron James, who recently switched employers, the next person you hire almost certainly will bring along his or her personal brand.

    As Kai said, the guidelines you’ve mentioned look good. While we’re all building our personal brands, many of us — to earn a living — choose to work for corporations like Scriptorium. It’s reasonable to expect some loyalty both ways.

    I wouldn’t delete or relabel blog posts from your former employees. The posts were written for Scriptorium. In today’s business climate there’s no negative connotation, either for Scriptorium or the people involved, to say that they no longer work there.

  3. Even before I started my second phase of self-employement I was convinced that know-how never is a property of a company but that of individuals. I am confused whenever I see websites of smaller companies without any key persons mentioned. The questions you see arising just show the need for companies to transform from single entities to an ensemble of individuals.

    I would pass those questions to the candidates and ask them for a policy how they will treat those matters and what kind of agreement they are willing to sign. Clever? Hopefully…

    – Michael

  4. Maybe you can adapt an idea from WWE wrestling. I’m pretty sure WWE owns the copyright to the wrestlers’ names. Obviously, you can’t go to that extreme, but maybe you could arrange for your new employee to have two personas – Jane Doe for private messages and Jane L Doe for Scriptorium messages. My cousin used her middle name at work and her first name at home – that’s another way.

    Did you see this article: Court orders ex-employee to hand over LinkedIn contacts http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/2791724/Court-orders-ex-employee-to-hand-over-LinkedIn-contacts.html

  5. Another thought-provoking post, Sarah!

    My take:

    (1) I’d be definitely offended (and likely not agree to) if my employer company demanded I leverage my Twitter and Facebook profiles for company-related tweets. I’d like to have a free hand in what I tweet (and that includes tweeting about, let’s say for example, political views). The Twiiter and FB accountrs are my personal accounts and I do what I like with them (while all the time following the dictum – be careful of what you say and NEVER represent that you speak for your company). I have friends who’ve tried to maintain two separate Twitter accounts – one for their personal tweets and another for company-related tweets – but have quickly given up because of the maintenance headache.
    What my company does: It has its own Twitter accounts, which are operated by a group of people; so, say persons A, B, or C can all post through the company account. It also has its own Facebook pages (which I, as a matter of personal policy, never ‘Like’. Heck, I haven’t even ‘Like’-ed the pages of my favourite authors or films).

    (2) Blogs written for a company are the property of the company and IMO, a writer cannot claim copyright over them or ask them to be deleted on separation. They are much like any other intellectual property owned by the company.
    Personal blogs: So long as a writer clearly states that the opinions expresses therein are not reflective of the employer-company, I think it should be fine…

    End result: Um, assimilating a prospective employee’s existing social network profile into the company’s social profile sounds, to me, a bit like owning the employee lock, stock, and barrel. They do have a life…

  6. @Kai: If you’re a tech writer in, let’s say, a software company, then I would assume that the company would be perfectly happy for you to blog about tech comm topics “on the outside.” As you said, it’s in our special case, where the company’s focus is on tech comm, that the presence of an outside blog becomes “interesting.”

    @Larry: I think we’ll leave up posts (especially relevant ones). The problem is when someone calls and says, “Hey, I read Joe’s post on using XSL for pig wrestling, and I have a project I’d like him to do.” “Um…Joe’s not here any more.” This is all hypothetical, and maybe I’m making too much of it.

    @Michael: Good idea, and I’ve already had that conversation. But I don’t think any of us have a good answer.

    @Ellis: Interesting, but the high profile is a potential asset to our marketing efforts. We don’t want to diminish it.

    @Anindita: (1) I see your point, but do people follow you because of tech comm-related tweeting? If so, isn’t that relevant if you work at a tech comm consultancy? The political content is going to be dicey no matter who you work for. As an employee of XYZ, your social media activity reflects on that organization. You are free to post whatever you want, but your employer is free to take into account whether to continue your employment if they feel your tweets reflect poorly on them.
    (2) I agree that the ownership/copyright issues are clear, for once.

    Yes, employees have a life. But the boundaries between work and not-work are less clear than they used to be.

  7. Interesting post. I recently mapped my social world in Visio (yes, geek!) to see where things were professionally and personally, how I had them hooked together, and what I was thinking of adding. The very nature of social media makes it a labor-intensive pain to maintain separate professional and personal personas… and yet, I’m a big believer in not crossing over there. So, I have some things that are just professional, some things just personal, and a very few that overlap. I also was talking to our social media folks internally and they were finding similar things amongst our customers and social media-ites internally — they generally liked to keep business and pleasure separate — so I need to keep that in mind when connecting with them as well.

    Alexia

  8. @Sarah

    There’s an easy line to draw between an employee’s personal life and work: is the commodity or service of value being compensated by the employer?

    I could see this working if the employment agreement defined, quantified, and stated that the employer was essentially “buying” the employee’s existing social network and the rights to future tweets, blogs, and other electronic publications.

    If an employee creates a social network or reputation using their own resources, even if it is within the same industry as their employer, then it’s the property of that employee. You can ask nicely for the employee to share their online clout, but to demand authority over it for the simple reason that you’re the boss is unreasonable.

  9. Some great thoughts, Sarah. Here are mine:

    – Personal blogs/Twitter accounts/Facebook accounts are just that – personal. Yes, people will know employees work for a company, but does that mean the company gets to have a say in what they tweet or blog? I would say no. Why would the employer have a say in that any more than they have a say in what the employee is doing that weekend, or how they behave in their personal lives? Of course, there’s a small disclaimer that if someone is lambasting your company in their personal blog, that will have a likely effect on their employment at your company, but in general, I’d say let the personal accounts be personal accounts.

    – I agree with Kai that if you’re happy with where you’re working and what you’re doing, you’ll end up using your existing Twitter/blog leverage to talk about your company’s social media efforts. My Twitter account is my own, but I retweet my company’s tweets often, and also bring up things relevant to my company’s industry. No one makes me, I just do it b/c it’s my company, I’m interested, and some of my followers might be interested.

    – I think blog posts written by former employees should be left on your site (with their names). They wrote the posts for your company, so I’d probably be inclined to ask them not to move them to their personal blog if they leave the company. One option here could be to link from their personal blog to their older posts on your site if they wanted.

    Thanks for another great post!

  10. @Michael: You write “…the need for companies to transform from single entities to an ensemble of individuals.” That reminds me of Maggie Thatcher’s quote that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women…” – which I think misses a big part of what makes society tick and worthwhile… 🙂

    Regarding your suggestion to “ask [candidates] for a policy how they will treat those matters and what kind of agreement they are willing to sign”, I’d advise against any part of a employment contract which is (a) variable and (b) highly visible.

    Depending on my current situation, I may make compromises in my job negotiations. But it’d be difficult to find that I surrendered my intellectual property rights to any blog post, while the guy in the next room can shoot his mouth off on his personal blog doesn’t make for a healthy work environment…

  11. This is amazing. Since when did anything I write for a company belong to anyone but the company? And since when did anything I write for me belong to anyone but me?

    Starting from that point-of-view, the issue only arises when my name represents the company in some way. In which case, if the ‘document’ includes a company logo, or name, in its descriptor it’s theirs. If it’s my logo/’name’, it’s mine.

    As for bringing a history, as an individual I can only point to (not copy) material that’s in the public domain. When I’ve wanted work samples for my ‘portfolio’ that isn’t quite public, I’ve always requested formal permission for that stated purpose, and it’s never been refused.

    And contacts? I’ve always understood contacts to be as essentially informal, if only to avoid all sorts of issues with European employment legislation.

    Without a proper separation of professional & public identity, I find it hard to imagine how I could function within any sort of secure environment. Far from demanding, or encouraging the graying of these boundaries, I would regard it as unprofessional!

    Which is why you’ll struggle to identify me on an inherently insecure social network.

  12. @mike: For those people who carefully separate professional and personal identity, I don’t think this is as much of an issue. However, there are a LOT of people who have blurred those boundaries. Look at the recent MindTouch blogger list (http://www.mindtouch.com/blog/2010/07/29/the-most-influential-technical-communicator-bloggers/), and take a look at the top three.

    RJ: RJ’s social media persona is at least 90% professional. We occasionally hear about birthdays or soccer matches, but in general, his blogs and tweets are focused on Adobe-related stuff.

    Tom Johnson: Tom injects perhaps slightly more personal information, but I’d estimate he’s still at around 80% tech comm topics. Interestingly, I think in Tom’s case, there’s a bit of separation between “tech comm stuff on his blog” and “tech comm stuff he does at work.” In other words, his blog’s areas of interest are not exactly the same as his work-related assignments.

    Scott Abel: Scott veers between personal and professional, and sometimes ties the two together in surprising ways.

    As far as I know, none of these people are interested in our job opening. But imagine if they were. How could we possibly *not* take their existing social media presence into account? And furthermore, how could we possibly *not* look at the question of how, for example, RJ’s ability to evangelize for Adobe might be a transferable skill?

    It’s also worth pointing out that in a consulting organization like mine, consultants are expected to have public profiles. Before social media, this involved speaking at conferences or writing books. Today, an active presence on Twitter and on our blog is a big plus.

    It may be unprofessional in a secure environment, but that’s not what I’m dealing with here.

  13. I wholly respect your efforts, as I do Tom’s, and Scott’s, and even RJ’s too (I’m joking RJ, but you do work for a company that’s as often infuriating as it is brilliant). I’ve learned a great deal fom all of you.

    That said, I would have thought the ‘ownership’ of conference papers, or books, would be easy to establish. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve seen terms and conditions of employment that cover these very topics.

    People that work in secure environments operate in all sorts of closed networks, and may well build a reputation within them. Twitter isn’t fundementally different in this regard, so perhaps you should ask HR to look at best-practice for, say, a research and development facility?

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