Friday, May 04, 2012

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 to @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 of 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?


  1. I agree with you from an official recordkeeping point of view. Hank and Sandi's statements are departmental in nature and therefore form part of the official 'voice' of each department and the recordkeeping guidelines cover this issue. John's account is a mixed bag of statements and would require scrutinised manual sentencing to record properly the official versus otherwise statements. I assume John would already do this as part of his recordkeeping practices. Whether John should keep his account if/when he leaves his current position ... well that is a worthy discussion. Your (Craig) account although containing some departmental statements was not an official account and those following you were following the 'Craig' persona and continue to do so without thought about where you work. Should your account be archived due to the amount of issues, discussions and advice given is another recordkeeping issue.

    The short answer is if the account is looked upon as unofficial and personal no I do not believe it is 'theft'. If the account was set up for the intent of corresponding officially yes then it is 'theft'.

    So the question to define theft is 'are those following trying to obtain favour from an official through the account and are only following because of the perception of a positive outcome?' if yes then those followers belong to the account which belongs to the office.

    Good question!

    1. Cris, agree with you points, except the last one.

      It's not always about 'obtaining favour' and I don't think the followers 'belong' to the account.

      If an asset is created or obtained with government resources - whatever the purpose of that asset - it should not be taken by a private individual or an organisation without appropriate agreement.

      So if government decides to release data or information for nothing, that's fine. However if someone takes data (or a contact list) from government without permission and uses it, that's an issue.

    2. I'm quite sure it is my personal account. I created it using my own resources. The disclaimer on my Twitter page makes it clear that unless otherwise stated the opinions expressed are my own. While I tweet about work and personal matters, I've never stated the 'otherwise'.

      I'm also sure that I'm not creating a record as my tweets are not information created or sent in the course of carrying out the business of my agency but are incidental to that business. They do not record or support business decisions. I take no action to retain them.

      If it could be argued that they were records, then I would contend that they were "faciliative, transitory or short-term items" and as such they need not be retained but can be instead destroyed using the "normal administrative practice" authority identified by the NAA.

      Consequently, the content of the account has no value for government. It remains to be considered whether the followers of the account are 'owned' by me or the Commonwealth. They could have chosen to follow me for one or more of the reasons the APSC rules allow me to use social media - official, professional or personal reasons (or out of idle curiosity!). It's clear that some did not choose to follow me particularly but did so using an automatic mechanism based on the content of a tweet not the author.

      Just as I don't own any intellectual property I create in the course of my work, I don't think I own the people who follow me for the purposes of my work. But as the choice to follow is theirs and I cannot hold them if they wish to go, while or after I am in my current job, and because following isn't a mutually exclusive activity in that following me does not stop them following my successor as well, I am not retaining anything that belongs to the government when I leave nor am I depriving the government of the use of this asset.

      It would seem appropriate to do two things before leaving, in my case. Firstly, I could tweet that I was leaving and provide anyone who wished with a replacement account to follow. Just tweeting I was leaving could actually be enough to avoid any confusion. Secondly, I could leave a list of my followers behind but, as that information is public anyway, there would be little point in doing so.

      What if I went to another APS position? The Commonwealth is indivisible so a distinction couldn't easily be made between positions. In that case, I might not need to do anything at all.

      I'm not planning on going anywhere soon so it's not a pressing issue but it was interesting to ponder.

      Thanks Craig.

    3. I appreciate the conversation around recordkeeping, however for me this is more about asset ownership.

      If you buy office equipment with government funds, it ia owned by the government and you cannot take it home with you if you resign from the government.

      If you control a website built and operated with government funds, it ia owned by the government and you cannot 'take it home' with you (by changing the access passwords so only you have them) if you resign from the government.

      If you control a social media account built and operated with government funds, it ia owned by the government and you also cannot 'take it home' with you (by changing the access passwords so only you have them) if you resign from the government.

      Unless, of course, the government has agreed to the transfer of ownership.

      The rest of the discussion is about putting a price on the assets taken 'home', to work out the seriousness of the potential offense.

      This type of issue should be covered in existing law, policy and practice, however not all agencies have really grasped that a social media account may be a valuable government asset :)

    4. Of course social media accounts are free, and the terms of use are for individuals, so saying that it was created with government funds is a little specious.

    5. The working time of public servants and politicians is paid for with government funds.

      Generally Departments take a poor view of staff who treat work time as their own personal asset.

      Equally organisations are considered, in most cases, to own the IP over whatever their employees create during work time.

      Just because the Government doesn't pay the social media provider to establish the account doesn't mean it is zero cost.

      And, even so, just because something cost nothing to set up doesn't mean it cannot grow in value or that it is not owned by the Government.

  2. Interesting article Craig. Another aspect of this is the convergence of personal and professional online personas.

    Given the value of a well established network, I expect some businesses will hire people on the basis that they can use their network to further the interests of the business.

    As we know, building and maintaining an online following normally takes time and effort, and is often based on the personal connection people have with you. A lot of this is probably conversation that happens outside working hours, establishing connections with people and 'representing the brand'.*

    This is no different to what has happened in PR and other roles for years. Often the experience that staff bring with them is a knowledge of who to talk to in the media, or who to call to get a good price. This is knowledge that is built up on the job, during work hours. A social network, but not online.

    I agree with your point that 'official' channels that are established by a business or government (or club or charity) should probably stay with the organisation regardless of who is posting the messages.

    Given the convergence of professional and personal accounts and activity online, businesses might need to accept that growth in a personal social network as a result of work related communication is probably a fair return for the use of that personal asset.

    * behaving in a way that is compatible with the business, which might mean forgoing political comment or other 'free expression', similar to public servants who comply with social media guidelines.

  3. Yes, interesting issue. And at least subject to being persuaded otherwise, I agree with your calls.