A recent lawsuit over a Twitter handle is a fresh reminder about what it means to be active on social media through your work—and a cautionary tale for both employers and employees.
The case in question is over a Twitter account that was originally established by the Roanoke Times, which was managed by their sports reporter, Andy Bitter. Bitter refused to turn over the account, and the 27,000+ followers who followed during the period in which he managed the account for the publication. Bitter took a new job at the Athletic.
This is an unusual lawsuit in several senses, and it shows just how integral building a social following has become to the publishing business. It also raises the question—an important one for both PR pros and media outlets—who do people follow, the journalist or the publication?
The ownership question seems fairly cut-and-dried. The account was started by the employee who handled the sports beat prior to Bitter being hired by the Roanoke Times. When Bitter started, the account was turned over to him; most of the account’s followers were added during his tenure.
So, who are the people who followed the account during that time following? Bitter, or the publication? My guess would be that they followed because of the insight and commentary he provided, rather than to find links to the paper or sports section.
The paper argues that the Twitter account is an asset of the paper’s, and that those followers represent a targeted advertising audience. That’s probably accurate too—they were following most likely for the sports commentary provided.
Why this matters to journalists
Journalism has become an increasingly difficult line of work to be in, considering the current state of the media business. Journalists, like many others who are active online in an official capacity, must build their brand.
A number of news outlets seem to have successfully threaded the needle on this issue by having official branded channels, and then allowing journalists to have their own accounts that are work-relevant. When and if a journalist leaves a publication, they change their Twitter bio to reflect their new publication, but the followers remain theirs.
This is, of course, an easier line to draw when the journalist in question comes to the news outlet already the owner of a Twitter handle. These have become so ubiquitous to the practice of journalism that I don’t think there are many without an existing Twitter account. The branded properties stay with the publication—The New York Times, for example, tweets out under a variety of section-specific accounts: NYT Arts, NYT Books, NYT Tech, etc.
Although I can understand why a publication wouldn’t want to relinquish followers that they can advertise to, it was shortsighted to permit a newspaper-owned Twitter account to be branded or tied to a specific journalist (hindsight is like that, always 20/20).
That other publications seem to handle this situation in stride means that this might just be one of those one-off occurrences—or, perhaps we just haven’t seen a financial repercussion from one of the larger outlets losing a reporter with a huge following. Whether litigation such as this is a one-time event or perhaps the tip of the iceberg remains to be seen.
Why this matters to PR Pros
First and most obviously, what matters to journalists has an impact on PR professionals, so it’s important to pay attention to this lawsuit and how it is resolved.
Second, I’ve often argued that Twitter is an effective way to address the bane of PR pros everywhere: always-outdated media lists. Journalists with Twitter handles that move with them to a new publication mean, at very least, you’ll be able to better track journalist job changes without the surprise of bounced emails.
There is far more to media relations than just sending out press releases to media lists. Media relations is about building relationships with journalists, and many are very accessible through social media. Of course, PR pros should treat this access with respect and use a connection on Twitter to be helpful whenever possible and work to build that relationship.
Building a Twitter list of journalists who work on the beats that are important to specific clients means a more up-to-date and maintained contact list. While journalists change jobs, they are likely to remain on the same or similar beats—as demonstrated by the Twitter issue described in the lawsuit that opened this piece. The journalist continued to report on sports, moving to a competitor; he did not change jobs and change beats. So, presumably, Twitter lists would provide continuity of topic area if not consistency in publications followed.
As the news business continues to struggle to find its footing, issues like this one will emerge. Paying close attention to the arguments from both the publication and the journalist demonstrates where the pain points are in the media business as it now exists. And changes in the media business are always going to be important to the practice of public relations.