We all have friends or acquaintances who occasionally post outrageous or downright offensive things online. So what can you do when these friends are your association leadership or staff? Can you dictate what volunteers and employees post from their personal social media profiles?
To a limited degree you can, without infringing on their legal rights or invading their privacy. Here's how.
Social media guidelines for volunteers and staff are in place at many REALTOR® associations nationwide. (To see several samples visit realtorm.ag/social-policies.)
These guidelines are, at their core, extensions of basic association media communication policies (or, for staff, the employee handbook). They outline who speaks for the association, what type of association information is confidential, and what type of speech, such as discriminatory or hateful, may land the author and the association in legal hot water.
The goal of these guidelines is not to curb free speech or judge people's opinions, but to educate members and staff and guide them toward behavior in keeping with the REALTORS® Code of Ethics, nondisclosure rules for association directors, and basic professionalism.
All social media is public
Employees, members, and even leaders who believe that their Instagram page or Facebook profile has nothing to do with their work may, in fact, be wrong. Firing employees for comments they post online is not uncommon anymore because employees represent their employers, even from their own social media accounts. In fact, 18 percent of employers report that they've fired people for something they posted on social media, according to a 2015 CareerBuilder survey. Volunteers also can be considered a reflection of their association at all times.
Even when members think their social media engagement is completely secret, accounts can be hacked, privacy settings can change, malware can disable security, and posts can be copied and shared elsewhere.
"Every time someone from leadership or staff opens their mouth in person or online, they are perceived by the wider world to be speaking on behalf of the association, whether true or not. It's called ‘apparent authority,'" says David Kissinger, government affairs director at the South Bay Association of REALTORS® in Torrance, Calif.
Kissinger says that his board members are advised that it is their obligation to be aware of how apparent authority gives their words strength and weight in a manner that is not always appropriate. "Just because it is your legal right to speak out does not mean that it is always a good idea," he says.
Leaders may think that a disclaimer on their blog or Twitter page (stating that their opinions do not reflect that of the association) is enough to distance themselves from their associations. But disclaimers are generally ineffective when it comes to public perception, says Nobu Hata, the National Association of REALTORS®' director of digital engagement. "When REALTORS® come to me and say they have freedom of speech to say whatever they want online, I say, ‘Yes you do, but you don't have freedom from the consequences of what you say.'"
When opinions harm reputations
Can a leader's personal views—a strong and persistent endorsement of candidates in a divisive election, for example—undermine his or her leadership role or the reputation of the association?
"It's certainly possible," says Teah Hopper, vice president of marketing and communications at Missouri REALTORS®. "We tell leaders, especially presidents, that we want them to have a personality on social media because people connect with that, but I think leadership's personal opinions can affect whether members volunteer or participate in the association, and what they think of their association."
This doesn't mean that leaders should limit their posts to association news and the weather, Hopper adds. "In my opinion, everyone is entitled to their own perspective, and with personal or political viewpoints, it comes down to how you express it," she says. "If you're not offensive, not belittling anyone, and not trying to force your views on anyone else, then people can usually see your opinion for what it is: your opinion."
Trouble can surface, however, when well-intentioned members and leaders don't realize how their comments can be misinterpreted online. "Every time I've ever approached a member about a post, the reaction was, ‘Oh, my gosh, I didn't realize how that came across' or ‘I now see how that could be offensive; what should I do now?'" says Hopper. "The answer is often to just reword the post, remove it, or post a clarification."
Problem posts also can stem from a misunderstanding of where the member was posting and how websites today are tightly interconnected.
"Some folks are compelled to respond to online articles, not realizing that those comments are then showing up everywhere," says Hata. For instance, in order to curb anonymous comments, more online publications are allowing readers to comment only if they sign in using their Facebook or Twitter account. Members often don't realize that any comments they make on an online news site also are distributed on Facebook, Twitter, and anywhere else the article appears.
Training leaders to be responsible posters
Hopper recently instituted a social media policy for leadership that aims to educate members about how social media posting works, as well as establish some dos and don'ts. "We felt that we haven't had to deal with social media posting issues yet, but we should get ahead of it and establish guidelines."
Hopper's policy asks leaders to "refrain from engaging in social media that may disparage or harm the image or reputation of the association or any of its employees." The policy cautions leaders not to share confidential information and to represent themselves politically primarily as a member of the Missouri REALTOR® Party, which supports real property rights regardless of political affiliation.
There was no pushback from leadership about the policy, says Hopper. "We tried to keep it more like guidelines. And I think most people look at it and think it's common sense."
Likewise, when Hata speaks to REALTOR® leaders across the country, he says he encounters little resistance to social media guidelines. "Fortunately, over the last four or five years, association leadership has generally accepted the idea that everything they say online can reflect on the association."
Social media gotchas
Although most social media training for leaders and staff entails guidelines and best practices, there are some hard and fast rules that, if violated, can land your association in legal trouble. For example, it is against federal election regulations to solicit RPAC donations via a public social media page (but it's allowed in closed REALTOR® groups). Posting confidential information about the association (financial, operational, and legal in nature) might violate a leader's fiduciary duty to the association and can result in legal trouble. Then there are issues when a copyrighted work is posted and libel concerns when leaders post something false about another person, damaging their reputation. Hopper covers all of these issues in her leadership training.
When leadership or staff violate the social media guidelines and post something confidential, outrageous, or severely objectionable, Hopper has a plan in place. She meets with her CEO, looks at specifically which part of the social media or other policies was violated, then seeks input from in-house legal counsel before she approaches the member directly. "We would tell the member that we want him or her to have an opinion and we respect that opinion, but the post really does not represent our association well, and, as a leader, what they say represents us, so can we talk about how to make this better. If it continues to be an issue, the policy we have enables us to ask the leader to step down."
Social media engagement is often filled with emotion and misunderstanding. "There's definitely no black and white when it comes to social media guidelines. There's a lot of gray," says Hopper. "But the right approach goes a long way."