Who owns your Twitter followers?

(MoneyWatch) Do you have a Twitter account? Do you discuss your employer online? Do you count your company's customers among your followers? What if you work in media and every person on the planet could be considered a potential customer? 

These questions came to the fore recently when a top editor at the New York Times, Jim Roberts, accepted a buyout. Roberts has more than 75,000 Twitter followers. Who gets to keep that audience? He does, he said (on Twitter, of course), even though he would probably have to change his handle, currently @nytjim, to remove the reference to Times. 

What about you -- are your followers yours? And what if you're the boss who has been paying people to post to your Twitter feed for you. Do you own those handles and those followers? Such considerations aren't merely academic. One company said that each of its followers was worth $2.50 per month; by contrast, another study showed that Twitter followers were worth less than $0.01. No matter what the right number is, they have value.

Here are some tips to make sure you you get to keep your own Twitter followers (or LinkedIn connections) should you part ways with an employer:

Get it in writing. When you start a job, insist on a written document spelling out that your Twitter handle belongs to you and you alone. If your boss asks you to start an account to publicize the company, also get in writing who owns it, what the expectations are and what happens to the account should you quit. Clarity at the beginning is a lot cheaper and easier than a lawsuit at the end. You may wish to consult an attorney if you have a more than a few followers (or intend to grow your followers).

Also document social media policies if you're the boss. Get them approved by the company lawyer -- you and your employees should sign on the dotted line to acknowledge legal responsibilities.  

Don't turn over passwords. If the account is yours, your boss shouldn't be able to log on as you. Like all other passwords, keep this one private.

Don't share your account. If you and your coworkers are all tweeting on your account, it's going to look a lot more like a business account than a personal one. If you are the boss and you want to use Twitter, or some other social media platform, to promote your business, keep these things in mind.

Don't ask your employees to use their existing accounts. Many people who join your company already have established Twitter accounts. It may seem easier just to have them continue using those. But unless you specifically want to legally take over ownership, it's going to be difficult to prove those are the company's followers if the account existed prior to the person working for you.

Maintain the password yourself. Yes, your employee will need to be able to access the company account to tweet things, but you should maintain the password, and the email associated with the account should be a company email address. You need to maintain the ability to monitor and edit the account, including deleting posts, if necessary. Change the password as soon as the employee quits or transfers to a different job. 

Make social media a specified part of the job description. It's not an extra -- it should be written down and the account should stay with the job, not the person. So when Bob transfers from sales to marketing, the new salesperson takes over the account and Bob gets a marketing one (if necessary). 

Keep the personal off the account. Your employees shouldn't be tweeting about their date last night, their lunch or anything other than things designed to help the business. What should and should not be done should be clearly written in policy.

Don't ignore this issue until you want to quit your job and take your followers with your -- or until your star employee quits and wants to take those followers.

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