Q: Who owns a journalist’s Twitter account? A: The users

Screengrab of Laura Kuenssberg's Twitter settings renamed to ITV

image from Tom Callow's Wall blog

When Laura Kuenssberg announced she was leaving the BBC for ITV, much was made of what might happen to her Twitter account. Was @BBCLauraK owned by her employer? (After all, it was branded as such, promoted on TV, and tweets were ‘processed’ by BBC producers). Or should Laura be able to take it with her? (After all, it was Laura that people were following, rather than a generic BBC political news feed).

The implications for the ‘journalist as brand‘ meme were well explored too, while newly empowered journalists may have been concerned to read that companies are inserting social media clauses into contracts:

“To keep hold of the good will created by a brand personality. Recruiters, for example, are often required to hand over their LinkedIn accounts upon leaving, so their contacts remain with the employer.”

Amidst all the speculation, Tom Callow stood out in offering some hard facts:

“When she had earlier tweeted the details of a new separate ITV account to her then 59,000 followers, only around 1,000 of them started following the new account.”

This sounds compelling until you remember that tweets are only seen for a relatively brief period of time by those followers who happen to be watching at that moment, and that a significant proportion of followers of celebrity/high profile accounts are likely to be idle or spam.

Still, it also highlights the fundamental weakness in all the debates about who ‘owns’ a Twitter account. One very important party is not being represented: the users.

Much of the commentary on Laura Kuenssberg’s move treated her 60,000 followers as an “audience”. But of course, they are not: they are users.

Some will be personal acquaintances; some will be fans of the BBC’s political coverage; and yes, some will be spam accounts or accounts set up by curious BBC viewers who forgot their password the next day. Some will follow her to ITV, some will follow her replacement at the BBC, and some never worked out how to click ‘unfollow’. (Kuenssberg’s successor – @BBCNormanS – had 5,824 followers after she tweeted a link, according to Paul Gregory, which means that only around 10% of her followers read either of those tweets and acted on them.)

Whether an employer claims ownership of a social media account or not, they cannot ‘own’ the relationship between users and that account. And there will be as many relationships as users. Some passive; some collaborative; some neglected; some exploitative.

It is those relationships that we should be concerned with developing, not the small print of an employee’s contract.


11 thoughts on “Q: Who owns a journalist’s Twitter account? A: The users

  1. Tom

    Nice blog and I agree on the point that it’s the relationships that are important in social media…don’t think many people read my blog properly as many are misrepresenting my view!

    However, if a journalist’s feed is only ever used as a broadcast channel for their employer and is labelled an ‘official account’, things become less clear.

    If Laura had used her account like Robert Peston and interacted with others, then fine, but she didn’t. Hence the issue…

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      All good points (especially about how she used the account) – I wasn’t really speaking about Laura specifically but more the discourses around who owns these accounts.

  2. Tom

    In short, if you want to own your account, then OWN it! Don’t let your employer take it over as their own by you not using it in the way in which it was intended.

  3. Dan Thornton

    I have to agree – mainly because great minds think alike, and my first tweet this morning was pretty similar:

    ‘*sigh* You know who can claim ownership of a journalists’s Twitter followers? The followers themselves – noone else. Settled? Good.’

    If a company has a social media policy which includes the use of social networks for official company business and personal business, then they have a right to complain or take action. If not, then they don’t.

    And regardless of what happens, if you’re following someone for BBC news, and they move to ITV, there’s a good chance you’ll unfollow them at some point, and find a different BBC feed, unless you’re a fan of them personally.

  4. S Howells

    Ownership was looked at recently by the High Court. “Consumer rights journalist Martin Lewis has won a High Court case protecting his ‘Money Saving Expert’ trade mark.”


    If you apply this ruling to Laura Kuenssberg and all other high profile journalists appearing in the media, she needs to trademark a tag line that she is always introduced by. She could be Laura Kuenssberg business news expert. This branding would be displayed on all her platforms. The High Court has ruled that in Lewis’ case the trademark money saving expert does not belong to the BBC or ITV or any media platform where it has appeared but to Lewis. Kuenssberg then develops a commercial business around her trademark “business news expert” like Lewis who owns a commercial business “moneysavingexpert” which the High Court describes as “advisory services relating to financial matters provided via an internet website”. This gives media companies the option to pay journalists by plugging their brand name businesses and not paying them a salary. Lewis is resident expert on BBC programmes including BBC Watchdog, BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine Show and BBC Radio 5 Live Shelagh Fogarty and none of these appearances cost the BBC a penny. He is paid by his trademark being broadcast whenever he appears.

  5. John

    Why wouldn’t the reporter own it in this case? She isn’t hiding the fact she now works for someone else. If her followers want to follow the current BBC political editor then it’s very simple for them to do so.

  6. TomP

    What is fair to both parties, who both have an investment in the ID? If only Twitter would allow cloning an ID, both parties could rename and go their separate ways with no ill feelings. Users could follow or unfollow as it pleased them.

  7. Pingback: Who owns your social media account? | Prakkypedia

  8. Rushfit

    This is a nice little grey area. I can’t get around the fact that “BBS” is in the name, and is probably a standard BBC has created for their reporters’ twitter names. I know that isn’t something that may be held in court, but you never know.

  9. Pingback: From LauraK to NormanS « The Richard Reynolds Blog

  10. Pingback: Twitter will soon let news outlets lay visual claim to their staffers … – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard – My Blog

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