HMV: In The Firing Line

Beleaguered HMV had enough on its plate before Twitter lit up with the sound of its staff being fired. Or rather, the sound of people Tweeting about its staff being fired

#hmvXFactorFiring, the explosive hashtag that appeared on HMV’s official Twitter (@HMVTweets), revealed that there was a “mass execution” underway as 60 HR employees were fired at once. The verified account with more than 60,000 followers had gone hostile.

There is one obvious lesson (that should really have been learnt by now): don’t overlook social media. Even if blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking etc looks like it’s being done from a computer in the corner of the room, its importance to a business – especially one with a target market such as HMV – cannot be underestimated. The worldwide media storm sparked by these Tweets proves that.

But of equal interest, in an area that is still developing, is the legal fallout from the affair. Employment issues might be something of a moot point given that the catalyst for the rogue Tweets was the end of the Tweeters’ employment, but there’s little doubt that a well-drafted social media policy would have caught and prohibited the actions – if even that was necessary. “Bringing the company into disrepute” is often considered gross misconduct, especially when played out in a public way such as this. One of the Tweets stated that “Under usual circumstances, we’d never dare do such a thing” – an acknowledgment that the Tweeters knew what they were doing was wrong. Had HMV wanted (or needed) to take disciplinary action, they would likely have been on strong ground. It is a lesson to other employers to be clear with their staff about what can and can’t be done on social media. In this case the Tweets came from a HMV corporate account – but what if they had come from an employee’s personal account? It’s quite conceivable that the affair would still have gone viral and created a similar storm, albeit (perhaps) not as quickly. A well-drafted social media policy should help deal with that.

Once HMV regained control of the account (reportedly after the Marketing Director ominously asked “How do I shutdown Twitter?”) it deleted the offending Tweets. But not before screenshot after screenshot had been taken, proving that once ‘send’ has been clicked, it’s nigh-on impossible
to undo. This was “just” a PR issue, but what if the offending Tweets had been less benign, defaming a third party or harassing an administrator? HMV’s liability could have been significant. What if the Tweeters had leaked supplier lists or other confidential, potentially sensitive, personal, information? The damage could have been catastrophic.

These are all issues businesses cannot afford to neglect. The HMV affair is a very public example but one that, from the outside at least, looks like it will end, licked- wounds aside, without any major liability for the firm. The same will not always be true.

As a footnote, and as if to demonstrate the unpredictable and unusual nature of social media, while HMV wouldn’t necessarily have wished for this publicity, maybe it’s not all bad news. @HMVTweets has gained around 10,000 new followers, and it’s arguable that the flak has been taken by the firm’s administrators rather than its staff or brand directly. And several newspapers have now reported that Poppy Cleare, HMV’s former social media planner who claimed responsibility for
the Tweets, has had several job offers as a result. They say “every cloud…”

Oli Worth, Greenwoods Solicitors LLP
Oli is a solicitor specialising in intellectual property dispute resolution, with a special interest in web-based and social media law. Greenwoods is a leading regional law firm who from their offices in Cambridge and Peterborough offer clients a full range of legal services. You can contact Oli on LinkedIn, via Twitter, or view his profile on the Greenwoods website:

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