PR Firm Sues over Twitter Brandjacking

This may be one of the best Twitter public relations stunts yet: a suburban Detroit PR firm has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to compel the social networking site Twitter to reveal who was behind a Twitter account which allegedly defamed the PR firm.

According to Don Tanner at Tanner Friedman, in early 2009, someone established a Twitter account using the firm’s name and represented themselves as someone speaking for the Farmington Hills, Mich.-based agency. The messages posted on Twitter, known as “tweets”, made “false and defamatory statements” about the firm according to the suit.

In other words, the firm was brandjacked on Twitter. Setting aside the question why someone would hire a PR firm who would have let this happen to themselves, I find it a compelling story, but one that doesn’t pass the smell test in my personal view.

Twitter has a very clearly spelled out policy on parody accounts and impersonation. If someone on Twitter is representing themselves as you or your business, all you need to do is contact Twitter using these procedures posted on the site. (Tanner Friedman has acknowledged that when it contacted Twitter asking for the material to be removed from its site, Twitter complied. Their complaint is that Twitter will not disclose records of who established the impostor account.)

What the public relations firm fails to realize is that it’s up to them to protect their trademarks and intellectual property. (That’s not Twitter’s job.)

That said, I think that filing the lawsuit may hasten Twitter’s efforts to formally launch its “verified account” program, which came after the St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter after someone established an account in La Russa’s name and used his image in a fake Twitter feed pretending to be La Russa. Though La Russa’s attorney announced that Twitter had settled the case, Twitter disputed that claim in a subsequent blog post.

Perhaps filing a lawsuit is part of Tanner Friedman’s crisis communications strategy, I don’t know. But I honestly see this suit, and the firm’s blog posts on the topic, as nothing more than a publicity stunt which seems to be backfiring. In my personal view, this effort draws attention the fact that the firm did a very poor job of protecting its own brand. (As someone who hires public relations firms, I have to ask if you can’t protect your own brand, why should I trust you to protect my business’s brands?)

The firm’s principals disagree with me. They believe they are standing up for, well — principles. Don Tanner wrote on his firm’s blog on June 8 that:

We are quite hopeful that, in the end, this exercise will set a precedent and serve as a deterrent against such individuals (those with no respect for media nor truthful, honest communications) doing this to others in the future. This person thought they could hide behind the anonymity that a computer screen often provides. They were mistaken.

I don’t buy it. If you’re in the public relations business, you need to know more about social media than they apparently do. (Why they would want to draw attention to they own shortcomings is not entirely clear. I don’t know what the fake tweets said about Tanner Friedman, but I can’t imagine they reached very many people. The same cannot be said about the news surrounding their lawsuit seeking Twitter’s records.)


8 responses to “PR Firm Sues over Twitter Brandjacking

  1. How is noticing a problem, taking action to stop it, and then seeking to protect itself now and in the future a failure to protect it’s brand/trademark?

    Where exactly did the “failure” occur?

    • The failure was in that it took 3 months for them to act. When they did act, they chose to alert media and file a lawsuit. It would have been a better approach to consider the matter closed when Twitter deactived the account.

  2. When you said ‘how could someone hire a PR firm that let this happen to themselves’, I thought ‘well, yeah — shoemakers children syndrome — but how many companies — heck, individuals! — routinely look?’

  3. John,

    As an on-going dialogue on this issue can only be, we feel, productive, we appreciate you comments on our situation. However, they are not quite accurate.

    We have repeatedly attempted to work directly through Twitter with little to no effect. While the ‘hijacked’ page is no longer ‘available,’ it is not clear who has access to it. We know we don’t.

    And, is that really our fault? If someone had taken out a Tanner Friedman Twitter page and utilized it for what Twitter is supposed to be used for: an open, honest micro-blog of thoughts, news and information, we wouldn’t be having this online conversation. Rather, someone knowingly took over the page in an attempt to defame us and did it blatantly and often.

    Where you are right is that you don’t know what was tweeted. It was potentially quite damaging to us. That is wrong.

    Your argument that this is somehow our fault is something WE don’t buy. It’s like saying a new bank is at fault for being robbed before they could have the alarm installed. In my world, that is still stealing.

    Response here in Detroit—by media and others in our industry—has been overwhelmingly positive. Shortcomings? I guess that is an opinion to which you are more than entitled.

  4. Bottom line: Social media works really well—from Twitter to this blog—when it is utilized correctly and respectfully.

  5. Don, thanks for visiting my blog and posting your comments here.

    I think your story raises important questions for public relations professionals, social media consultants and attorneys.

    The news accounts and blog posts I’ve read leave a lot of questions that I expect are answered in your legal filing. I haven’t yet reviewed the court documents, but I’d be interested in seeing them.

    My questions for you are around the timeline of events. Here’s what I’ve pieced together:

    * The Twitter account in question was opened in January and the tweets you deemed “defamatory” and “vindictive” were posted in January, February and March. The last offensive tweet was posted on March 26.

    * On March 27, you complained to Twitter and you alerted Crain’s Detroit Business to your situation. They posted an blog item about it that day.

    * Also on March 27, the tweets in question were removed from Twitter, presumably by the user of the account.

    * At some point after you contacted them, Twitter deactivated the “TannerFriedman” account.

    * On May 3, you filed a lawsuit in Federal Court demanding that Twitter provide you with two things: 1) indentifying information — email address, IP addresses, etc — of the person behind the “TannerFriedman” account and 2) control of the “TannerFriedman” user name on Twitter.

    It seems to me, it’s important to know when Twitter deactivated the account. (By your own admission, the offensive content was removed the same day you complained to Twitter and to media.) Knowing when Twitter deactivated the account, gets at their responsiveness to your complaint.

    I’ve reviewed both Twitter’s terms of service and its privacy policy. Both are pretty clear.

    Twitter’s terms indicate that by setting up an account, “you understand and agree that Twitter cannot be responsible for the Content posted on its web site.” I checked MyFirstTweet and see that you set up your account in February and your business partner Matt Friedman set up his account in October of last year. When you did so, you agreed to these terms and conditions and acknowledge that Twitter can’t be held responsible for the content you find objectionable.

    Separately, the privacy policy states that, “Twitter cooperates with government and law enforcement officials or private parties to enforce and comply with the law.” They go on to say, they “may disclose” the kind of information you’re seeking. They don’t say they “will”.

    Lastly, they say in their terms & conditions, which you and Matt agreed to, that, “[they] reserve the right, in accordance with any applicable laws, to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.”

    In your suit, you are seeking private information about another Twitter user. Twitter has indicated in its policies that it will release this kind of information about fellow users to private parties at its discretion. You are also seeking control of a user name on Twitter, despite the fact that you previously acknowledged that “Twitter can refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.”

    I am surprised that a Federal Judge has agreed to let your case go forward. I am not a lawyer, but expect that in doing so, the judge has also communicating to your attorney and to Twitter’s attorney that he would prefer you work this out rather than take up time in court. (And honestly, don’t you think our court system has better things to consider?)

    From Twitter’s point of view, they have a user who is unhappy with another user. (That happens hundreds of times a day in Twitter conversations about sports and politics. Did you see tweets about the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals?)

    As soon as you made Twitter aware of the situation, the content in question was removed from Twitter. At some point after that, the account was deactivated. Your first reaction was not to give Twitter time to respond to you, but to go to Detroit media with your complaint which all but intimates that the persons behind the account are your former employers.

    Why in the world should Twitter cut you a break when your first step was to cause them negative news stories? Also, your lawsuit means they have to hire lawyers to represent them in court in Detroit, even though your suit is against “John Doe”, the person or corporation who created the Twitter account in question. You can say you’re not suing Twitter, but when Twitter gets their legal bills, it’s the same thing.

    I think from Twitter’s point of view, they’ve honored their terms of service and their privacy policy. I’m guessing you think so too or you wouldn’t be suing “John Doe” you’d be suing Twitter. I also suspect that Twitter is not complying with your request because it would set a precedent that any user angry with another user could force Twitter to hire a lawyer, no matter the circumstances.

    From a social media point of view, I have to wonder why it took you 3 months to discover that this was going on. Your business partner was on Twitter this entire time and you joined the service one month after the “TannerFriedman” account was established. Didn’t you guys use the Twitter search function or get a Google alert at least once during the three month? (I mean you found my blog in less than 24 hours, why did it take you 3 months for this to get on your radar screen?)

    From a PR point of view, I just don’t see how going public with this matter helps the reputation of your firm. For your sake, I’m glad you disagree with me and feel like the response to your lawsuit has been positive. (Obviously you wouldn’t have filed the suit, which you call an “exercise”, if you didn’t think it was good for your business.) By the measure, “any publicity is good publicity”, I suppose you’re right. But what I took away from this whole episode was that your team didn’t understand social media; that you you’re well connected to traditional print media in Detroit; and that you’re highly litigious. On that list, I only like one thing.

    That said, I have to think you’ve probably learned a lot since March. You’ve obviously climbed the social media learning curve — you quickly responded to my blog and my criticism. I also imagine you’ve probably won some new fans from this episode. I don’t know.

    Keep me posted on what happens next. I will be interested to hear what happens in court and how this helps you grow your business.

    On this one, we may just have to agree to disagree.

    Thanks again for stopping by,


  6. Pingback: Federal Judge sides with PR Firm on Twitter Lawsuit « Dilbert is Funny for a Reason

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