Stephen Grootes and the company-employee Twitter dilemma

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Stephen Grootes is cool. He’s one of those passionate, enthusiastic journalists that you really enjoy listening to on the radio. And he’s a prolific writer, broadcaster and Tweeter with almost 15k followers. It’s not particularly large on a world scale, but good for the niche. And Grootes’ followers will just grow and grow and grow as time goes on.

I often hear Stephen’s Twitter handle being punted on radio, and with every punt the followers rack up. And rightly so — tweeting journalists have added a new richness and dimension to the 100-year wireless.

Grootes is not alone. It’s pretty much the case for anyone in any company, media or otherwise, with a bit of a profile. We know the blah blah about the power of social networks and all that: How social media has ushered in an era of personal publishing, giving unprecedented power to individuals to get the word out.

Anchors of major TV networks or radio stations that have been around for a while, are building up massive follower counts. In the States these followers often run into the millions. Here, one Tweet can literally equal the reach and publishing power of a radio station or newspaper, over and over again, with no cost but that tweet. That’s mind boggling.

It may be the brilliant sociological revolution of the digital era, but it’s a revolution that has created a conflict of interest on a large scale. Here is the problem: Who owns @stephengrootes? Is it Stephen Grootes, ID number 748XXXXXXX, or is it Stephen Grootes the radio persona? It may seem an obvious question to answer, but it’s not.

(By the way, in case you are wondering, I’ve used Grootes as an example because: 1. He was the first person that came to mind when conceptualising this article, and 2. He’s so bloody good at the Tweeting/journalism thing.)

The love affair begins
Like most love affairs, the dance between a tweeting employee and their company starts immediately with a whirlwind, passionate embrace. No-one at this stage is really thinking of the future. At first it’s seen as a fantastic synergy; a positive win-win situation for the company/media entity and the Tweeting individual. It’s a veritable circle of promotion, medium-integration and just all-round innovation where everyone wins.

And it is just that for a while… until of course the tweeting employee hits the road and joins another company, with a chunk of their former employer’s audience or customers built up during that period of fantastic synergy.

So if I worked for a big media company for ten years and I punted my personal Twitter profile, that grew to some nice, nasty number — I would begin to personally command quite a bit of audience power.

Maybe it would be the start my own media empire, or maybe I could take my followers to a rival media company and begin tweeting to the very same audience built up in cooperation with my former employers. And imagine if I was disgruntled, then I could really show them!

So what are we to do? Well it’s not easy. It’s seriously uncool for a company to clamp down on what is generally an altruistic gesture from passionate, engaged staff members to promote that company. In all likelihood, the high-profile tweeters in most companies are the most hard-working, loyal and dedicated of the lot.

But more importantly, who is any company to tell me that they own my name, Twitter or elsewhere?

The solution: A partnership
For public figures, who have amassed a following of a particular number, maybe it’s important to distinguish between a private and public persona. Everyone should own their own name on Twitter of course. It would be bizarre for a company to claim ownership of the name my mother gave me.

A potential solution could be that the high-profile employee hands their Twitter account, in this case their namesake, back to the company when they leave. The Twitter handle is then renamed (quite easy to do on Twitter) for the next guy. The former employee then reclaims their personal name, and starts again. I doubt this will be a very popular solution, because the poor old Tweeting employee is left with nothing.

So maybe a generic, public Twitter handle should be used? CNN, for example, uses a combination of its brand and a journalist’s name: For example CNN_Anchor1 or sanjayguptacnn (1,4m followers). Again this doesn’t apply to media only, we could also be talking about @joebloggs_fnb or @SKhumalo_oldmutual. (I don’t know why I still like underscores, but that is another article entirely).

What this means is that this is truly a partnership between public media outlet and employee. What this also means is that if the employee had to leave, he or she doesn’t take the audience or customers with him or her.

A point to note in mitigation is that the above solution may not work in all cases. For example, a company may take into account the potential size of an employee’s Twitter followers and what position that employee holds in a company (a public, consumer-facing or back office role?). The company’s aims and objectives may be taken into account too. For example, large media conglomerates are likely to have stricter rules than small tech startups, who are likely to not care very much.

But without a doubt, if there is a convergence between a company and employee’s Tweeting activity, there should be an agreement and policy on how it all works that is fair to both company and the very diligent, hard-working Tweeting employee.

It’s messy and uncomfortable, but it may be just the compromise.

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  • sima kobo

    Good Point Mathew however if a business, particularly corporate, has not taken time to update it’s Information or IT Policies. Then it poses a snooze and loose situation.Partnerships can be a great opportunity however passion will always trump obligation. i.e If I tweet for my company, the passion applied can never exceed voluntary participation. 

    But this remains a good framework for policy managers to start from.

    Great Post!

  • Cliff

    Or the corporate could create an imaginary persona – as #FNB has done wit @rbjacobs 

  • http://twitter.com/TracyParsons Tracy Parsons

    Great post, seems like uniformity is needed – 702 is a good example – they have @702JohnRobbie but the rest of the presenters seem to fall into the @stephengrootes category

  • Iamneatherparker

    The only problem is…runing two Twitter accounts. Don’t know about anyone else, but as I’m permanently signed in as the non-personal version of me, the personal version simply gets no airtime. So in the end you don’t have much of a profile yourself.

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