Why You Need a Policy If Your Employees Are Twittering

By Rex Stephens Apr 17, 2009
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First, learn the lingo.

Are you a “follower?” If not, someone in your company is probably following someone on Twitter or has developed a following on the fastest growing social networking site.

A “follower” is a person who has elected to receive Twitter messages, or “tweets,” from a particular author through Twitter.com. People who are following are watching other people’s tweets.

As Twitter use has mushroomed (more than 8 million people use the site worldwide), employees might be receiving tweets, or sending tweets—short messages of 140 characters or less—through your company’s computer servers and other electronic resources.

Allowing employees to send or receive tweets through company networks is not the biggest issue, however. Some companies set their computer networks to block Twitter.com and social networking web sites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, StumpleUpon, Tumblr, Utterli, and countless others.

Currently, the most pressing problem is managing the risks associated with the content of the messages sent through Twitter and other “texting” resources.

Because the number of words is limited in Twitter (140 characters), employees, including executives, minimize the impact that a tweet can have. Unfortunately, even 140 characters can create a controversy.

Unwanted Twitter Headlines

Many individuals and companies that utilize Twitter want public recognition. The point is to attract followers. But this dynamic is where the danger lies. In an attempt to be personal and provocative, individuals who open their posts to anyone can disclose unauthorized company information, violate employment policies or other rules, or cause a public relations headache.

Some recent national media headlines highlight these concerns:

Another noteworthy example comes from the public relations world itself. A public relations executive recently upset FedEx Corp., one of the PR agency’s clients, with a tweet he sent to his followers. As he was visiting Memphis, Tenn., the headquarters of FedEx, he wrote: “True confession but I'm in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here!”

This tweet got back to FedEx, and the company was not pleased with the public disparagement of its hometown. The incident, in turn, was picked up by bloggers and PR media publications. If such a blunder can be made by a public relations executive, imagine the potential for error when another type of executive or employee uses Twitter or a similar messaging service.

Benefits of Twitter

Of course, many companies seek the media and public attention that can come with Twitter. A recent review of Twitter.com reveals many interesting and entertaining business-related tweets: Shamu from SeaWorld; Comcast; JetBlue; Marvel Entertainment; Dell; and the San Francisco Zoo.

Statistics about the number of followers and views are recorded and, in many cases, made public. This thirst for publicity can be nourished, but in a controlled way—especially if a company utilizes Twitter. Once that happens, employees might get mixed signals about how they can use Twitter or other messaging services. If a company ignores the impact of Twitter and similar online social networks, the company’s silence might cause confusion. To help manage risk, therefore, companies should provide a brief written policy about company expectations. This might complement an already-existing policy on e-mail and Internet communications.

Some Policy Suggestions:

  • The personal use of Twitter or social networking web sites must not interfere with working time.
  • Company approval is required for authors who use electronic resources of the company to send “tweets” or other public messages.
  • Any messages that might act as the “voice” or position of the company must be approved by the company.
  • Any identification of the author, including usernames, pictures/logos, or “profile” web pages, should not use logos, trademarks, or other intellectual property of the company, without approval of the company.
  • If he or she is not providing an official message from the company, an employee who comments on any aspect of the company’s business must include a disclaimer in his or her “profile” or “bio” that the views are his or her own and not those of the company.
  • A message should not disclose any confidential or proprietary information of the company.
  • Written messages are, or can become, public. Use common sense.

Rex Stephens is an attorney and partner in Baker Hostetler’s Employment and Labor Law Group.

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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