As social-media use becomes almost mandatory for businesses, many are wrestling with the sometimes thorny issues that arise.

Story highlights

As social-media campaigns become required for companies, tricky issues can arise

Legal community eyes whether employees accounts belongs to them or their employer

Companies can get embarrassed by posts, but freedom of speech protects some workers

At the Olympics, volunteers were told to mind their posts for safety, privacy reasons

CNN  — 

If you’ve ever wondered what a social-media presence is worth in an increasingly digitized business world, just ask Noah Kravitz’s former employers.

According to them, his Twitter followers are worth about $42,500 a month – and they’ve gone to court to make him pay up.

Kravitz has been sued for flipping followers from his work account to a personal one when he changed jobs. His case shines a spotlight on some thorny and confusing truths for both companies and their workers in the digital age.

In 2012, it is nearly impossible to imagine any company engaging with the public without using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social networks.

“Social media now is not an option, it’s a necessity,” said Anthony DeRosa, who, as social-media editor for Reuters news service, works to both share the company’s content across the Web and help his co-workers do the same. “A couple of years ago that wasn’t the case, but I think now people have to be a part of it, whether it’s one social network or a couple of them.”

But at the same time, creating an online relationship with customers comes with risks.

The past few months have seen more and more cases arise in which employees’ personal and professional use of networking sites have created uncomfortable situations. Yes, there appears to be real and lasting value for employers in having an online presence that feels human, not corporate, sanitized and aloof. But it’s a delicate balance that sometimes is just one angry rant or accidental over-share away from disaster.

“It’s so easy to start these [social media] profiles that a lot of people might not have thought right away [about] what are going to be some of the repercussions down the road,” said Jesse Dill, a Milwaukee attorney specializing in labor and employment issues.

“You’re seeing there’s some value to it … but it seems like every year something new is going to pop up that is going to catch employers’ attention.”

PhoneDog vs. Kravitz

Dill and others in the legal community say there’s little, if any, legal guidance on many aspects of social media in the workplace and that Kravitz’s case could go a long way toward establishing a precedent in at least one area.

Last week, a federal judge decided to allow the case against Kravitz by PhoneDog, a website that reviews mobile gadgets, to move forward.

Kravitz worked at PhoneDog from 2006-2010, piling up 17,000 Twitter followers on the account @PhoneDog_Noah. But when he left, he switched the name of the account [a move the micro-blogging site allows] to @noahkravitz. He began sharing things he wrote for other tech sites, a move PhoneDog said wasn’t fair because the company had helped establish his online identity on Twitter and elsewhere.

As the legal case moved forward, PhoneDog asked for damages equal to $2.50 per month for every Twitter follower Kravitz took with him.

“It takes both sides to compromise in order to settle their differences, and while I can’t speak for Noah, I can assure you that we are looking to find a fair and reasonable solution,” PhoneDog CEO Tom Klein said in a written statement earlier this month. “Noah has the ability to stop the legal nonsense and move on; it’s his choice.”

Kravitz, of course, sees it differently. He says PhoneDog agreed that the account would remain his, even sending out a message to followers to that regard, and that he hopes his case can clear up such questions in the future.

“If people can learn from my case and avoid the situation that I’m in – be they companies or individuals – then that’s great,” Kravitz said in an e-mail interview. “I’d hate to see the unique and newly developing power of social media – the spirit of individual voices speaking on a variety of topics and such – squelched by concerns over legal gray areas and shortsighted contracts.”

Dill said, regardless of the outcome of that case, a few things are becoming clear. If a company wants to stake a legal claim to a social media account, it needs to make sure its employees know that’s the case, enforce the social-media policies it creates and, when possible, have more than one employee maintaining company profiles on the sites.

“I really think this year you’re going to see people starting to draw attention to the value of these profiles and really want to go out and protect what is developed on the company’s dime,” he said.

‘Don’t be stupid’

Ownership, however, is far from the only social-media issue that has bubbled to the surface in the workplace.

What of the cases when an employee uses his or her personal or professional networking accounts to do something that embarrasses the company? Or, even worse, insults its customers?

Take this ill-tempered tweet: “I find it ironic that that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f—ing drive.”

That could be considered a pretty bad Twitter post for a contract employee at a company based in Detroit. It’s a worse one if that company happens to be Chrysler Motors.

And it’s a four-alarm meltdown if, as happened last year, that employee accidentally tweets it from the official @ChryslerMotors account. (Yes, he was fired).

Then there was the time Microsoft offered condolences to Amy Winehouse fans by trying to sell them her music. Or the avid Facebook admirer of a new car who turned out to be easily identifiable as an executive for that car’s manufacturer. Or whoever at Kenneth Cole thought it would be funny to joke that pro-liberty protesters in Egypt were rioting because they heard how good the clothing company’s spring collection was going to be.

“Not everyone is cut out to use social media,” said DeRosa, who was recently named one of the “Top 100 Influencers in Social Media” by Social Technology Review. “Some people just don’t know how to handle themselves in public.”

At Reuters, he said, it’s about striking a balance. He works mainly with people who are, themselves, professional communicators, so he wants them to have fun and be themselves while using networking sites. At the same time, however, they must remember they represent the entire organization.

“[When] you have a platform where they can say things instantly and the world can see it, you’re always running a risk that someone’s going to say something stupid,” DeRosa said. “We try our best to lay out the guidelines and have the workshops, but it kind of comes down to common sense. There’s not much more you can do than tell people not to be stupid.”

From the NFL to the Olympics

Companies are increasingly realizing they need more on paper than just a plea for common sense.

Major corporations of all kinds are crafting more detailed social-media policies, hoping to avoid a public faux pas or, in the worst case, to have something to fall back on if they need to sack a worker with poor Twitter skills.

Professional sports offers a clear, if sometimes exaggerated, look. Virtually every pro league has instituted some sort of social-media rules for its players. Mostly, they’re designed to keep players from tweeting or otherwise sharing shortly before, during and shortly after games.

Not that it always works.

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was fined $20,000 and suspended two games for violating Major League Baseball’s policy last year when he went off on a profane Twitter rant after being ejected from a game.

Is anyone surprised that the always flashy Chad Ochocinco went afoul of the NFL’s rules with a pregame tweet last season? (Don’t call them the “No Fun Leagues” just yet, though. The front office loosened its tie and let players tweet during the Pro Bowl last week).

Sometimes image isn’t all that’s at stake. Volunteers with this year’s London Olympics have been forbidden to post behind-the-scenes details about their experiences, with organizers citing the safety of athletes and other dignitaries as a concern.

It’s routine for media companies like the BBC to require editorial employees to curtail online political speech and for most all employers to say company logos may not be used by individuals.

For example, CNN employees are told not to post anything online that does not meet editorial standards or, in most cases, has not been cleared as reportable on CNN platforms. Employees also aren’t allowed to take public positions about the issues, people or organizations on which they report, unless they have been given specific permission to do so. Bottom line is, in most cases employees are told not to post something online about the stories we cover that they wouldn’t say on air or write online.

Then, there are companies whose social media policies are full of quirks.

IBM’s policy goes so far as to tell employees not to “pick fights” on social sites and that they must “speak in the first-person.”

Cisco Systems requires that any public posting about the company be accompanied by this line: “The views expressed on this post are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cisco.” (If nothing else, that should avoid problems on Twitter. That statement sucks up 92 of the site’s maximum 140 characters.)

In addition to telling airmen not to lie or post porn, the U.S. Air Force also urges them to “stay in their lane,” or area of expertise.

“If you’re an aircraft mechanic, you’re well suited to communicate messages about aircraft maintenance,” the policy reads. “If you’re an aircraft mechanic blogging about legal issues – reconsider your blog.”

‘Drawing a line’

In the United States, the federal government may be having a say as to when those policies infringe too much on freedom of speech.

In several cases, employers have cracked down on employees for negative comments they made online. But the National Labor Relations Board has said they can’t do so with impunity.

The NLRB is an independent government agency charged with investigating and remedying unfair employment practices.

“Employer policies should not be so sweeping that they prohibit the kinds of activity protected by federal labor law, such as the discussion of wages or working conditions among employees,” the NLRB said in a report released January 25.

Last year, the board weighed in on behalf of an ambulance driver who had been fired because of a negative Facebook post about the company he drove for. The board said the company’s policy, which prohibited negative comments by its employees on the Internet, was too broad. In February, the two sides settled the case.

“They seem to be drawing a line between employees complaining about the terms and conditions of their employment and employees just making personal gripes about their employers or the customers they serve,” Dill said. “The employer has to be careful about their policy, but also how they react to an employee’s posts.”

To slice it another way: An employee is legally protected if he or she is sharing thoughts and opinions about job conditions with co-workers. But whining about them to anyone who will listen can still get you fired, especially when it happens on a platform that can spread those complaints all over the world in seconds.

“As people start to pay attention to these issues – to see what employees might be doing with the social media accounts – then we’ll see more issues identified,” Dill said.

He and other legal experts agree on one thing: With social media becoming ubiquitous in the workplace, those issues won’t be going away anytime soon.