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Identifying Company Spokespeople

In the social media world, companies are being required to do something they've never done before—they are being called upon to establish their corporate identity in a third-party environment over which they have little or no control.

An emerging area of concern is the appropriate identification of company spokespeople. In order for an environment of trust to be created online, consumers need to know to whom they are talking. On some networks, anyone can create an account using a company name without having to show authorization to use that name.

Often the Terms of Service (conditions for participation in a particular social network or site) are loosely written and loosely enforced, leaving plenty of room for abuse by both malicious and mischievous individuals falsely posing as company representatives. It's also popular to impersonate celebrities and politicians on Twitter. In the run-up to the 2008 election, there were several people on Twitter representing themselves as Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, though none of them were genuine.

In the corporate world, there are often unauthorized uses of a company's name and identity that are not necessarily damaging but might be cause for concern. In 2008, for example, ExxonMobil confirmed that "Janet," who staffed an account on Twitter called ExxonMobilCorp, was not an authorized representative of the company. "Janet" was a hard fraud to spot. She was using the company name and logo, and her Twitter profile used ExxonMobil branding to round out the illusion. She was also knowledgeable about the company and the energy industry in general.

The revelation that Janet had perpetrated a hoax spurred a flurry of reactions, including observations that social media is inherently untrustworthy, and that companies, like Twitter, that run these networks, don't do enough to police the use of company and personal identities. Arguably, a company like ExxonMobil, in a demanding regulatory environment and a frequent target of attacks by environmentalists, probably needs to maintain closer control of spokespeople, company authorized and otherwise.

It's unclear whether ExxonMobil took steps to shut down the account. Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder, contacted via email, would not comment on whether ExxonMobil had asked them to reclaim the user name, saying only

  • "Twitter responds to requests from company representatives with a policy that supports trademark, brands, and businesses. If there is a conflict with our Terms of Service, companies can contact us and we'll work to get it resolved."

Twitter's Terms of Service does not specifically ban misrepresentation as an authorized company representative, and it states,

  • "We reserve the right to reclaim user names on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those user names."

In other words, if a company specifically requests it, Twitter may take back a user name. In the meantime, there are many issues to be settled in regards to corporate identity outside the four walls of the corporation.

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