You would have already read about the controversy around the Times of India’s latest social media policy for its employees. There has been a debate brewing since Quartz did two stories around two versions of the policy.
I shared my view point in this story that Mint did today on the issue. While the story has some excerpts of what I shared with the publication, this post has my complete point of view on the subject.
This post by MediaNama gives an excellent context and a perspective on the debate.
Broadly, the policy states it would be creating new social media accounts for its employees that they would be required to use to share news and other related information instead of using personal accounts. The control of these accounts would reside with the employer. Employees have the option to convert their existing personal account into a company user account in which case their account would become the intellectual property of the Times Group and would stay so once the person leaves the organisation
Here are two excerpts from the policy:
The company shall be the owner of the access passwords, username and associated email address for the User Account, which shall be used by you on behalf of the Company to make posts. Company retains administration rights of the User Account, which shall be made accessible to the Company on demand. It is understood that sharing of such details of the User Account shall be an integral part of your contract with the Company and shall also be necessary for processing any settlement related to termination of such Contract.
The posts made by you on User Account shall contain news and other related material and may also contain any personal material and interaction, which we encourage. You shall inform the company about your personal user accounts and the same will be allowed by the company, subject to you refraining from posting any news and other related material on the same. The personal user account shall always belong to you and carried by you in the event of any severance of your contract with the company. At your request, while in employment, your personal user account may be converted into a company User Account. It is specifically agreed that on such conversion, all intellectual property rights in such converted User Account shall be vested in the company.
The recent debate is reflective of the growing conflict of interest between the phenomenon of personal brand versus the organisation. Today, as ‘individuals’ are able to amass massive following on social media; they are sometimes emerging to be more powerful than even their own employers/organisations in terms of reach. This is especially true of media organisations. Barkha Dutt has 1.48 million followers, more than half that of NDTV at 2.48; one may wonder about the value of Chetan Bhagat, appearing on the India Today cover when his own follower base on social (with 2.44 million followers on Twitter alone) is likely higher than the circulation of the magazine.
Increasingly, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog where the employees/journalists are proving to be a potential challenge/ threat to their employee/media houses as they become more powerful in their individual reach and influence.
There are two key points of view that we need to look at to understand this debate.
One is the view of the organisation who incurs ‘costs’ in the infrastructure (work space, access to information etc.) and the compensation that they pay to an employee in lieu of their services (in case of media, the employee is selling his time). The employees are arguably leveraging the same ‘time’ to broadcast their thoughts on their personal channels, connect with the world outside and build a strong personal brand for themselves. Also, being associated with a big brand/media house helps them gain credence and hence arguably at the ‘cost’ of their employer, individual employees are being able to build strong reach and influence for themselves. The one pain point as an employer is that, once the employee quits, he/she takes the network along. More importantly, for media houses especially, whose primary business is reach and eyeballs, the individual brand is a threat because the journalists who can now publish the stories through their own Twitter or Facebook page dilute the readership/viewership of the parent brand, impact the advertising and hence can dent the revenues (or potentially earn revenues himself/ herself). Hence, the first view is the emerging business threat for the companies.
The other view of the debate is the freedom of expression of an individual. Does a company have the moral right to ‘control’ the personal presence of an individual? When an employee chooses to work with an organisation, does he/she only sell their time or also their identity? A job may be transient but the identity of an individual is permanent. Can he/she give away control of their personal channels to their employer to leverage for other updates/advertising that may be in ‘conflict’ with personal values of the individual?
There are no easy answers to this debate, especially as the medium is still evolving. One thing that the media companies need to think about is that in the digital era, the cost of production is going to be less about physical infrastructure such as the printing press. The real cost is going to be the intellectual capability of the journalist to ‘produce’ content which gains interest and readership. In such a scenario, should the media houses then be exploring new formats of revenue sharing where the journalist ‘earns’ a variable pay for the incremental reach, influence and consequently revenue that he/she can help generate through their own individual channels? We will discover with time.
I have also shared responses to some specific questions on the topic shared by the publication:
Q) Why has employee social media handles become so important for companies?
Like I shared earlier, from mini-distribution networks to massive individual brands by themselves, the employee today holds the power to broadcast messages, have their own set of consistent followers and subscribers impacting those companies which are in the business of reach and influence.
From diluting the reach of the parent brand through their own distribution networks, to leaving a void when they quit (especially employees with personal brands who are the voice of the company in the industry), with individuals becoming powerful they impact the company’s interests.
Q) What are the best ways for a company to use an employee’s social media handles?
Companies need to respect the freedom of expression of their employees. In cases of media companies, they may need to evaluate newer forms of revenue sharing with the employee to reward them for a higher value they may bring through reach or business opportunities. They are likely to build a win-win situation through co-ownership than coercion.
Q) What’s your opinion on companies trying to segregate and use their employees’ social media accounts – forcing them to make one official one, just like an official email ID and an official phone number? Is this something which you see as becoming the norm?
The new policies are reflective of the volatile transition that we are making from an analogue to a digital world. Social media is still an evolving space and as it stands today, personal and professional are not defined by strict boundaries. An individual uses his/her Twitter account to share the latest movies watched, their political views and their professional achievements all together. Social media started as an open, level playing field for all to express and win on the merit of their idea and community they could bring to rally around those ideas. Over years, even social media has proved to be malleable to the interests of a ‘few’. The values of ‘openness, transparency and expression’ are fighting a battle with those seeking to ‘protect’ self-interest and hence ‘control’. Time will tell which way the balance shifts.
Q) Do employees become puppets in a way, on social media, mere spokespersons of their company? Without any personal identity? Is that desired by the company?
The story of social media so far has been about the power of the individual ‘voice’. It’s been about personal expression, a free-flowing stream of thoughts and ideas. Increasingly, social media has been faced with the pressures of market interests, those of the traditional powerful and the new-powerful. The recent debate and talks of amendments in the policy however is a sign that these changes are not likely to happen without resistance and discussion.
Do share what you think.