I have never been a fan of the notion of “personal brands”. I get the meaning of how one can build a brand-like presence based on your interactions with social networks, what pops up when you Google your name and the signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter (aside: services like Twitter Grader, Twitalyzer and Twitterrank can give you some indication). To me everything about personal branding can be summed up in one word that avoids the messy translation of the metaphor; reputation.
But what about the reputation/personal brands of high-profile community managers, brand stewards and social media customer service reps? These roles have been popping up all over the place lately. In many cases these people have spent company time and resources building up their personal brand as a corporate asset. In other cases someone may have previously established a reputation and then lent some of their influence to the company they represent.
From a corporate perspective, borrowed or built reputation has value, influence and most important the authenticity of a real personality. Yet there is also tremendous risk.
- What if the “personal brand” quits, or is fired, and worse yet goes to a competitor?
- Can the employee take their influence with them (i.e. Twitter followers, Facebook group admin privileges, forum identities and most ethereal of all, the Google juice linking the person with the brand)?
- What is or is not permissible once the reputation is no longer employed by that brand?
- Who owns the intellectual property associated with the reputation (blog posts, tweets, etc.)?
- What if an employee with influence does something that negatively impacts the company or discloses material information?
The answer in almost all cases is “it depends”, which is not sufficient in my mind. In fact, we may not be far off from the first law suit when a company tries to fight for control of the trappings of a high-profile personality after they have left the company.
This is tricky stuff and I am no IP lawyer, but here are a couple of thoughts that may help social media mavens and the companies they work for to keep their branding separate.
- Treat it like personal vs. private email – Conduct your corporate communication on one account and your personal communication on another. It is messy, yes, but not as messy as a lawsuit. Most IT people understand that even though you might access your personal email from a work machine, it doesn’t mean that your plans for Saturday night are a corporate asset.
- Segment your existing accounts – If you have already set up profiles for social media tools, classify each as primarily Personal or Corporate and draw a line. If it is both, then register a new one and conduct personal communication on that one. The @richardatdell format for Twitter is a good model to follow.
- Treat your communication as a company asset – If you are doing it on company time and you are gaining most of your influence because of your association with the brand, then chances are it should stay with the company when you leave.
- Review your contract - If you have a well-established online reputation and you are lending your influence to a company, spend some time negotiating or re-negotiating your contract for who owns what. Specify which profiles and accounts you are bringing with you (and thus will take when you go), which accounts you are transferring to be a company asset and how you will handle new profiles.
- Review your company policies – Many companies have restrictive intellectual property policies that if aggressively interpreted could have you handing over more user names and passwords than you bargained for. So review the policies now and get exceptions where needed before it becomes an issue.