How the BBC lost 60,000 Twitter followers to ITV

Back in March, I wrote this piece looking at the ownership issues around Twitter profiles used for professional purposes. I noted that sensible consensus seemed to be that a personal feed (with no inclusion of a company or brand name) is owned entirely by the individual behind it, whilst a corporate feed (with no inclusion of an employee name) is owned entirely by the organisation to which it makes reference.

However, the post raised the issue of Twitter profiles that combine both employee and employer names. At the time, I mentioned that the account of the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, was the perfect example of this – @BBCLauraK. What would happen, I asked, if she left the BBC for a rival media outlet? Would the BBC keep her Twitter account and reassign to her successor, or would she be permitted to take it with her?

Last week we got our answer.

On Thursday 21 July, the BBC lost 60,000 Twitter followers when Laura Kuenssberg renamed her @BBCLauraK account to @ITVLauraK.

Before the changeover, Jemima Kiss wrote for the Guardian that changing the name of the account would be the “sensible thing to do” and that Laura Kuenssberg’s successor “could hardly step in and take over the account anyway – that’s not what Kuenssberg’s followers signed up for…”.

I disagree. Many people, myself included, wanted to follow the updates of the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent (@BBCLauraK). We might be less interested in updates from the ITV’s Business Editor (@ITVLauraK). 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, which seems to support this assumption.

However, beyond the views of her followers, I think the BBC had a pretty decent ownership claim on the @BBCLauraK Twitter account.

The BBC listed it (and in fact still does) as one of its official Twitter accounts here. Whilst there is no mention of ownership in the BBC’s recently-published social media guidance for official Twitter accounts, it seems at least one prominent correspondent, Philippa Thomas, specifically removed reference to the BBC from the name of her Twitter account she switched from @BBCPhilippaT to @PhilippaNews (although her bio does says (BBC newswoman). Perhaps this was because she didn’t want the BBC to have editorial control over her tweets, but I’m betting the issue of ownership of Twitter accounts must have come up at the BBC.

People have argued with me that the BBC taking control of Kuenssberg’s Twitter account would be like forcing her to surrender all of the contacts on her mobile phone or pretending that she never met any of the political figures with whom she came into contact as a BBC correspondent.

My response is that Twitter followers aren’t names in an address book. They are more like subscribers to a blog. We must remember that Twitter is precisely that: a microblogging service. Whilst the microblogs of BBC correspondents are running off Twitter’s servers, the BBC is controlling what tweets go out and must be able to stake a claim on the ownership of each official account – not least because they are now promoted so prominently on screen during news bulletins and even shows like Newsnight and Question Time.

Kuenssberg rarely, if ever, included links in her tweets, but a quick look at recent tweets on Robert Peston’s Twitter feed – which has a similar number of followers – shows that each link he tweets is resulting in thousands of click-throughs to the BBC News website.

If ITV came along and demanded that the BBC redirected Laura Kuenssberg’s blog on the BBC News website to the business section of its own website, it would rightly be laughed out of the room. Yet ITV has done something on an equivalent scale by poaching the BBC Chief Political Correspondent’s 60,000 subscribers with the click of a mouse.

On a final note, BBC technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones has two Twitter accounts – one personal and one for his employer. His personal account was set up long before the other one and has over double the number of followers. Many people follow both accounts, so it’s an interesting example of how organisations like the BBC can have correspondents running both an official BBC account as well as their own personal account in harmony – everyone’s a winner.

What do you think about the ownership of Twitter accounts that mention an employer’s name or brand? Should all Twitter accounts that are used for work purposes be owned by the employer, or just those that mention the organisation in the name of the account?

Tom Callow is an account manager at Automotive PR, maintains the company’s Twitter profile @AutomotivePR.