If one of your company's aspirations for 2012 is to create a deeper presence in the social media world, especially using Twitter, you should keep an eye on a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Phonedog.com.
The suit surrounds the question of whether an employee who uses his or her account to build a presence for his or her employer should surrender that account if he or she leaves the company. The case in question involves mobile phone Web site Phonedog.com, which has sued former employee, writer Noah Kravitz over the 17,000 followers that he had built up on a Twitter account called Phonedog_Noah before he parted ways with the company.
According to the papers, the company told Kravitz that he could keep the account provided he continued to post occasionally on its behalf. Kravitz continued to so, but he switched the name of the account to NoahKravitz.
The lawsuit came in July 2011. In it, the company requests damages of $2.50 per follower, per month, claiming that the Twitter list was a customer list and that Kravitz had basically walked away with trade secrets. That amounts to roughly $340,000.
The case will be held heard in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California; the case is PhoneDog v. Noah Kravitz (N.D., Case No. C11-03474-MEJ). (The case isn't yet a "case of interest" for the court, but I'll bet after the string of stories I have seen written about it this week that it will move into that status.)
Strictly speaking, Twitter actually "owns" the account in question, but the Phonedog case will absolutely set a precedent for social media strategy. That means if you are an individual tweeting on behalf of your company, you need to tread carefully, especially if you have decided to include the company's name in your Twitter handle. Likewise, your team needs to set out clear parameters and policies about what employees and executives should or shouldn't include on accounts that are considered "personal."
Truth be told, it is difficult to make hard distinctions sometimes. I'm lucky in that I am a freelancer and therefore I make my own rules. But it is in the mutual interest of my employers like CBS Interactive (publisher of SmartPlanet and ZDNet, where I write two other commentaries) for me to use my Twitter account (@HeathClancy) to alert people to stores and articles I'm reading. (Incidentally, I can't tweet under my own name because someone down under got to it before me four years ago.)
In any event, be sure to be explicit about your rule of social media engagement or your company could find itself in a position similar to that of Phonedog, where the interests of a popular web site with lots of fans and the interest of a well-followed expert on mobile phone trends will duke it out in district court.