Who owns a Commissioner’s Twitter account, and its followers?

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 14.47.332014 is the big change-over year in the EU institutions. A new European Parliament will be elected in May 2014, and a new European Commission will take office in late autumn 2014. Some Commissioners will stay on, but probably with new portfolios, and others will not return after 2014. Some of the new Commissioners may come into the job already with social media presences of their own.

The problem for the Commission is that no-one really yet knows what to do with the Twitter followings of current Commissioners once their term ends. As the table below shows, only one Commissioner – Michel Barnier – had a Twitter account prior to the 2009 elections, and this was just ‘officialised’ at some stage. All other Commissioners have built up their presences while in office. In 2014 it will be much more complicated.

The question then comes: how have these audiences of Commissioners been built? Have they been built with administrative resources (i.e. Commission staff have been doing the work), or through the engagement of the Commissioners themselves? And does that even matter? Does Malmström have more right to keep her followers as she tweets herself, while Reding has less right because she lets her staff do all of it? This takes us very close to the William Hague case – the British Foreign Minister’s account is a horrible mess of party political and governmental communications, and the decision has essentially been taken to live with that mess.

Further, do people follow a Commissioner because they want to follow that person? Or want to follow that person only because of their role? How many of the 85000 following Kroes would do so if she were the Commissioner for Agriculture rather than for the Digital Agenda? And if a Commissioner changes portfolio in 2014, what should happen to the followers? Should they be left to the next Commissioner with the same portfolio, or taken with the Commissioner when he or she moves? We do not have answers to these questions.

Further, with some Commissioners trying to jostle for top political positions in the future (rumours circulate about Barnier and Reding at the very least), will we suddenly be seeing a lot more party political communication on these accounts? If so, the Boris Johnson case would be worth bearing in mind, where the mis-appropriation of an administrative account for political purposes prompted quite a backlash.

Other examples include:

So what do you think should happen? Do comment below!

(note: some of the suggestions for this piece come from a conversation I had with Matthias Lüfkens on 24th October in Geneva, and Matthias has a related post about Barack Obama)

Data used for this piece
All Twitter data was accumulated on 25th October. Days on Twitter is calculated from the middle of the month a user joined, to today, so may be up to 15 days incorrect.

User Tweets Following Followers Joined Days on Twitter Tweets per day New followers per day
@borgton 65 86 575 July 2013 102 .64 5.64
@MimicaEU 216 295 1617 June 2013 132 1.64 12.25
@JHahnEU 373 699 2225 December 2012 314 1.19 7.09
@GOettingerEU 140 107 6535 October 2012 375 .37 17.43
@AlmuniaJoaquin 57 24 2232 September 2012 405 .14 5.51
@AntonioTajaniEU 2396 304 9639 March 2012 589 4.07 16.37
@StefanFuleEU 910 30 20064 February 2012 618 1.47 32.47
@VassiliouEU 2516 252 8276 February 2012 618 4.07 13.39
@MalmstromEU 2264 281 15864 January 2012 649 3.49 24.44
@ASemetaEU 349 492 3693 September 2011 771 .45 4.79
@MarosSefcovic 3118 352 5047 September 2011 771 4.04 6.55
@BarrosoEU 1081 1212 56972 September 2011 771 1.40 73.89
@SiimKallasEU 1580 352 9342 May 2011 894 1.77 10.45
@CHedegaardEU 833 257 24810 March 2011 955 .87 25.98
@MariaDamanakiEU 1379 589 8563 March 2011 955 1.44 8.97
@LaszloAndorEU 2313 116 10656 November 2010 1106 2.09 9.63
@VivianeRedingEU 850 371 29776 August 2010 1167 .73 25.51
@NeelieKroesEU 5915 1205 85433 June 2010 1288 4.59 66.33
@KGeorgievaEU 3086 839 15066 March 2010 1320 2.34 11.41
@JanezPotocnikEU 3059 289 16471 February 2010 1348 2.27 12.22
@APiebalgsEU 1035 290 12421 October 2009 1471 .70 8.44
@MBarnierEU 1442 1332 25308 November 2008 1805 .80 14.02
 Totals 34977 370585 40.58
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  1. The Indian prime minister’s office just threw away 1.24 million Twitter followers – Quartz

    […] vanished). Jon Worth, an EU Affairs blogger, has a fascinating post titled “Who owns a Commissioner’s Twitter account, and its followers?“, a question that will become all the more pertinent after the European Parliament […]

  2. Anne

    @Mathias Lüfkens I doubt whether any of the Commissioners/cabinet people know this, except perhaps Neelie Kroes and a few others. In any case, the EC social media team is regularly in contact with Twitter and has been handling all the verifications – so they should in any case be able to verify which accounts are official commissioner accounts after the new Commission is in place.

    I also think it is impossible to regard the Commissioners’ accounts as 100% private. They are public personalities and certain rules apply to how they are expected to behave in public because they represent the Commission. That being said, most of them probably have little time to manage their accounts (or their websites or mailboxes), so I think it is only natural that staff help out.

    Frankly I think this will be sorted in a very undramatic way. Commissioners clearly have the ultimate say in what will happen to their accounts, but there should also be some clear instructions from the institution on good practice for those who are leaving.

  3. Brusselsblogger

    @Matthias Lüfkens

    Exactly. So for me this is all about rules for Commissioners’ PRIVATE accounts. Because this is what they are in my view. And then you could ask whether it is ok to have Commission staff managing these private accounts and, more important maybe, whether they should have the official Commission logo as a Twitter background image.

  4. Mikael Hansson

    Here is another example. A new user is tweeting every week on The official account @sweden https://twitter.com/sweden. On Monday morning the change is coming up and a new voice from Sweden is handling the tweets. It´s an interesting piece of work to let a lot of different individuals setting their view of Sweden in public.

    The Twitter handle also changes every Monday. The username is always @sweden, but the account name changes to a postfix with the new Twitterholder. For example this week the account name is @sweden / Luisa. Next week the name after the slash will change to a new one pointing at the individual who´s tweeting next week.

    And the old tweets? Well they just carry on and if you scroll back to earlier weeks it looks just like it was Luisa who wrote them (beacause the account name is changed).

    Is this a way for the Commissioners? Maybe not, cause then the one who is taking over after Neelie Kroes also will take over her posts and updates. Could be good for the Commisioner role but maybe not for the Commissioner.

  5. Vanessa Witkowski

    Very interesting topic. It reminded me of Margot Wallström who was one of the first Commissioners to be active on Facebook. I just checked her profile- it’s now entirely in Swedish meaning that she has probably gradually took on a new angle as her responsibilities and therefore target audience have changed.

    To some extent, your questions are relevant to anyone changing jobs. I used to work for the DG MOVE communication team and would regularly tweet (or retweet) on EU transport issues. Now that I am no longer working there, my tweets are still very much transport policy oriented, but are more inspired by my new personal life. (not very, very active though, we just moved countries…)

    That being said, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution. I agree that it very much depends on the Commissioner, what his or her post-2014 plans are, and how much he or she actually tweeted… In any case, I’m very curious to see what happens to all these twitter accounts!

  6. Matthias Lüfkens

    @Brusselsblogger here is the problem. EU commission staff have been updating some of the Commissioners’ accounts. Some commissioners update their own status, others let their teams do the tweeting and some do a mix. So the question arises, who “owns” the account? Either it is the property of the EU commissioner, be it an avid or occasional tweep or do we consider the account to be official EU property, paid for by the EU taxpayer, ie the Commissioners are not entitled to walk away with the account and rename it for their personal political use? IMHO this questions needs an EU directive… 🙂

  7. Brusselsblogger

    These twitter accounts are personal ones and I think the politician should keep it. The fact that they will lose the verify status when they remove the “EU” or change the bio was new to me, interesting.

    It’s important, however, that no Commission money is spent for the promotion of single accounts. So if there is promotion, it should be for all EU Commissioners’ accounts equally.

  8. Matthias Lüfkens

    I would argue that institutions and governments should set up “personal isntitutional” accounts such as @Flotus and @VP and soon @Potus?!? I like the US appraoch with a strict separation of private and institutional accounts. Here’s my take on the whole issue: What will happen to the @BarackObama Twitter account in 2016? http://burson-marsteller.eu/2013/10/the-cast-what-will-happen-to-the-barackobama-twitter-account-in-2016/

    When they change the bio the accounts will lose the verification, but all it needs is a DM to @Verified to get the precious star back. 🙂

  9. Simon Blackley

    Twitter has always offered an easy solution.

    The underlying issue is a common one, although Commissioners’ status as celebrities makes this a special case. Corporate accounts lack personality and precision. We relish the variety and intimacy of personal accounts. But there are huge areas of overlap, and rightly so. We like it when we get a human reaction from a company customer service team. And we expect senior figures to represent their organisations, even on their personal accounts. So what happens when they change jobs?

    This dilemma is much older than Twitter. Is it your child’s school that you value, or his teachers? Is it your accountant who has your trust or the firm she works for?

    What’s strange is that, unlike other social platforms, Twitter let’s you change an account’s name (as opposed to its username), and the avatar associated with it, at any moment, with no cost. It is possible to run a corporate account (@DG_XX) with the current representative’s photo and name (Worth / DG XX, for example), and to change them when the representative moves on, without changing the account itself.

    In any case, following and unfollowing is so low-friction that it is relatively easy to migrate the majority of an account’s engaged followers.

  10. Alejandro

    …I actually rethought number (2), for in a second thought it didn’t look sensitive to the followers. This is what I’d do in number (2) twitter account is at the name of the person but with references to his/her position e.g. @MimicaEU, then I’d ask the person in question to send a messages to the followers to the new account with the new person’s name in it and take off the reference to the position from the old account e.g. “EU”,

  11. Alejandro

    I’d differentiate three cases: (1) twitter account name is the institution e.g. Pontifex, then I think the archiving of prior messages is the most sensible, (2) twitter account is at the name of the person but with references to his/her position e.g. @MimicaEU, then I’d change the name of the user with the new person’s name in it and archive the messages, (3) twitter account is at the name of the person, I’ll let it at the discretion of the person, though I’d advise to send a couple of tweets informing he/she had ended his/her position and forwarding users to the account of the new person. The rest, I’d reckon, should up to the users to continue following or unfollowing the account in question.

  12. Anne

    Oh, I forgot one thing: If the Commissioner does not want to take the account with him/her, the Social Media Team should see with whoever takes over the portfolio(s) if they want it and change the username/bio, deal with the verification issues and finally hand it over to the new Commissioner’s press team .

    If nobody wants the account, I am sure Twitter @gov can be of help. They must have seen such situations before.

  13. Anne

    Jon, I am not sure we discussed it out in the open when we made the naming convention for the official account names (Commissioners, spokespeople), but we did think of one thing: To get us to verify the account, they should have EU in the username. I don’t know if they stuck to this policy (Borg, Sefcovic, Almunia do not comply) as I left the Commission last summer.

    If the commissioners (who leave the commission) want to keep the accounts there is nothing the services can do about it – but I would at least expect them to remove the EU from the account name and change the bio – which means that Twitter will automatically pull the Verified tag.

    If the Commissioner gets another mandate, I think the account will just follow the person, as the spokes/cabinet team most probably will. No need for a name change.

    Perhaps it will be useful to analyze in more detail the followers of each account. I am sure that many nationals will follow their own Commissioner (Swedes follow @MalmstromEU etc.), although I think this is more the case for Facebook. It could also be a good idea to ask the followers to follow the affiliated DG account while the change happens if they want to keep an eye on the policy side.

    In any case, the social media team is in charge of the direct relations with Twitter @gov, so they should start thinking of a strategy to manage the changeover (if they are not already on it).

    Just my two pennies on this!