Who Owns Your Social Media Accounts? Think Again

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According to the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, in 2013, over 1,000,000 businesses filed for protection. That number decreased by 12.6% in 2014 when nearly 940,000 businesses filed. When the term bankruptcy comes to mind, I think of loss; whether that be financial or intellectual data. What does not usually come to mind is social media. That is, until I read this article.

In Houston, Texas, Jeremy Alcede lost his gun store after filing for bankruptcy. The federal judge overseeing the case declared the business’ social media accounts were business property and ordered the passwords to be given to the new owners. Alcede did not agree. He spent nearly seven weeks in jail after refusing the judge’s orders to give the passwords of the accounts to the new owners.

It’s all about silencing my voice… Any 3-year-old can look at this and tell this is my Facebook account and not the company’s,” stated Alcede, who was released from jail in May after following the judge’s order.sm business plan

Although the waters of social media in bankruptcy are highly uncharted, the AP listed several cases where ownership of social media accounts became the subject of dispute:

  • In 2012, a South Carolina Internet company settled a lawsuit filed against a former employee it had said cost them thousands of dollars in lost business when he took 17,000 Twitter followers with him.
  • A Pennsylvania federal court in 2013 ruled in favor of a woman who had sued after her former employer took over her LinkedIn account following her firing.
  • Also in 2013, British court approved a company’s request to temporarily stop a group of ex-employees from using the firm’s LinkedIn contacts to start a rival business. The employees claimed the LinkedIn accounts and contacts were personal.

Professionals across the industry have weighed in with their opinions on the topic. Villanova University School of Law professor, Michael Risch, noted that social media accounts – including Facebook and Twitter – are now seen as property.

I suspect that’s what the judge was looking at, is this primarily an asset being used for business advertising to get customers to talk about what is going on with the company,” said Risch, who specializes in Internet law. “It might have started out as a personal (account) but turned into a business property.”

Dallas bankruptcy lawyer, Benjamin Stewart, stated: “If your business is something you feel very passionately about, it can be hard to separate those things. The moral for people is you have to keep your personal life separate from your business life.”

According to Alisa Agozzino, Ph.D., APR and assistant professor of public relations at Ohio Northern University, planning and knowledge is key in situations like this:

“This is why a social media policy is so important. Seems like the problem was he didn’t separate business from personal.  This is also where knowing the social media laws are incredibly important. They obviously had something [laws] in place in Houston where this happened.” 

Our Point-of-View

The question remains, should Alcede have been forced to give up his social media accounts? I have to side with Stewart: keep your personal and business lives separate.

In the ever-changing world of technology – specifically social media – you must understand and keep up-to-date with what is and is not business property if you own a business. Before spending hours building an online clientele via social media, create guidelines. These guidelines should include who manages the account(s) and subject of posts. Had Alcede drawn the line between personal and business use (and followed a plan), the situation would have ended differently.

Once again, ensure your social media accounts – personal and business – remain that; separate.

Create accounts specifically for the business. The accounts should have logos and contact information identifying that it is, indeed, a social account for strictly the business. Ensure the account is public. There are many ways to promote a business via personal accounts, but still keeping the two separate. One way is by sharing (or retweeting) updates, images and content the business account has updated via your own personal account. It creates word-of-mouth, but maintains the divide of business and personal. Business owners must understand social media accounts act as intellectual data and can, and will, be an asset to a business – therefore, may be taken away in circumstances such as bankruptcy.alwaysplanahead

Although Alcede did not agree with the court ruling, his actions to not follow orders landed him in jail. Had he complied from the beginning, the situation may have ended differently.

According to Firestorm Colorado Principal, Guy Higgins, owners and employees need to understand social media ownership functions:

An employee’s social media account:

  • An employee’s personal account used for only personal purposes
  • An employee’s account set up for and used only for business purposes (this reflects an error on the part of management)
  • An employee’s personal account used for business purposes (may or may not be commingled with personal usage)

An owner’s or company’s social media account:

  • An owner’s or company’s account used only for business purposes
  • An owner’s account used only for personal purposes
  • An owner’s account used for commingled business and personal purposes (again, an error on the part of the owner)

Guy believes the courts are aligned with the following (numbers correlate to the above use cases):

  • Personal property
  • Company property but probably resulting in court action to resolve that definitively
  • Probably company property but will be very messy with lots of how much personal and how much business and who authorized, etc
  • Company property
  • Personal property
  • Probably company property but could be very messy as with the case described below

“…given how many companies are owned or run by people less comfortable with social media than others (employees), company management needs some well-thought out social media policies, and they need to ensure that all employees using company social media are well aware of and have acknowledged those policies. Else wise, you have employees taking off and taking “their” followers, friends, connections, whatever with them as described in some of the other cases cited.”

At Firestorm, we encourage businesses, both small and large, both public and private, to be prepared. Preparation comes in the form of PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.® Predict your next crisis and be prepared by creating a plan; this includes a social media plan. By planning, management will perform better during time of disaster – increasing chances of survival.

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