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Social Media: Building Community and Avoiding Pitfalls

10/01/2018 1:38 PM | CAI Rocky Mountain Chapter (Administrator)

By Ashley M. Nichols, CAI-RMC Editorial Committee Member

With popular social media platforms like Facebook, Next Door, and Twitter taking over the way that many people communicate, questions abound about the use of social media in community associations.  The use of social media can certainly be a tool to build community and engage your members, but there are also risks.  This article will update the status regarding the use of social media, but it will take more than 280 characters to do so.  #readon #socialmedia #community  

According to results of CAI’s National and State Statistical Review for 2016, an estimated 69 million Americans – 21.3 percent of the US population in 2016, lived in common interest communities. In that same year, the United States had 197.7 million Facebook users, 68 million Twitter users, and approximately 68 million NextDoor users (with that company expecting this number to grow to 100 million by 2020). Almost certainly then, your community association has experienced the effects of social media in some context.  Unfortunately, you’ve also seen that the effects have likely been negative. Why is that and how can we change that to improve our communities?

Think about this: A Florida State professor of social psychology did an experiment in which participants gained or lost the same amount of money.  Participants were more upset about losing $50.00 than they were happy about gaining $50.  In another study where children and adults up to 50 years old were interviewed about their childhood memories, the study “found a preponderance of unpleasant memories, even among people who rated their childhoods as having been relatively pleasant and happy.”  Conflict is what people talk about.  If things are going well, no one generally praises in public.  People will always vent in public, and social media platforms provide an easy way to do that. You also know why this is, but you may not know that it has a name: the Disinhibition Effect.  In a nutshell, it means, you can’t see me, you don’t know me, and I can say whatever I want behind the safety of this computer screen.  

Social media has changed the way that nearly all of us live (and communicate) in this world.  Because of this, there is an opportunity for community association boards to use the platforms in a way that will build community and engage your members.  Using social media effectively can also be a great way to keep members informed, as well as curating a brand for your community.  The use of social media should not be to give opinions about Board decisions.  It should be informational.  Provide time/location/agenda for Board meetings. Post about community events.  Do you have an ice cream social in the summer?  Post about that – put pictures from the event up (request permission before posting any pictures of children).  Post about when the pool will be open.  These are all things that members will, hopefully, find useful. 

When it comes to the risks of using social media, it comes down to “netiquette” – the correct or acceptable way of communicating on the internet.  Be clear, be concise, and be unemotional.  If you keep these three things in mind, the risks will be minimized.  Board members, as a rule, should be mindful of speaking about the community on any social media using their personal accounts.  Engaging in comments (even just “liking”) can indicate favoritism (perceived or real) and that can lead to issues within the community.  You are sure to find that there are instances where your Board or manager may feel the need to respond to posts and comments.  Again, be mindful of getting too involved in any conflict and really use the platform to provide information.  For example, if owners are in an uproar about a topic, consider commenting about when/where the next Board meeting is taking place and encourage members to take issues/concerns to the Board meeting to discuss.  Remember it is often easier for people to say things online than it is in person, and encouraging owners to move the discussion to a Board meeting may diffuse the situation.

Some of the risks that may arise when discussing the use of social media are as follows:

  • Discrimination: His/her post wasn’t removed, but mine was.
  • Defamation: If a potentially harmful post (all about perception, right?) is not removed, a crafty owner could argue that the association has taken on liability for the content of the post.
  • Harassment: If upset by posts that might be directed at a specific owner, that owner could assert a claim that the association has provided a forum for which content is being approved to harass an owner.

With the right enhancements, most business insurance policies can include personal and advertising injury provisions that cover these types of claims.  “Advertising” is any notice – including a post on social media – that is broadcast or published to the general public or specific market segment about your goods, products, or services for the purpose of attracting customers.  Limits on this type of coverage may be too low, so an umbrella policy is smart.  

There are also federal laws that protect associations that may worry about the risks of social media.  The Communications Decency Act, in short, eliminates liability for information posted by third parties.  And the Digital Millennium Copyright Act eliminates liability for copyright infringement claims involving content posted by third parties.

Another concern that is often seen (whether an association is using social media or not) is escalated neighbor to neighbor squabbles.  Again, because of the ease in which people tend to “spout off” on the internet, when neighbors take their disputes to a public venue, it could lead to “bad media” if someone takes it to the news.  Any negativity seen in public could certainly tarnish an association’s reputation, and more importantly, if significant enough, could depreciate property values.  Further, if Board members are considered to be “meeting” because of their discussions on social media platforms, one could potentially argue that it is constituting a quorum and “conducting business” outside of the law.   

So, what can your association do to help grow community and avoid pitfalls? HAVE A POLICY!  Some provisions that your Board will want to address in the policy are as follows:

  • Whether a Board can or cannot have an official social media platform; 
  • Define who has access to the sites; 
  • Consider keeping the access to only owners (i.e., private Facebook group); 
  • Define who is allowed to post information;
  • Consider assigning just one Board member (or the manager);  
  • Whether a Board member can or can’t have their own independent social media channels representing the Association;
  • What can and can’t be communicated on a Board’s social media platform; 
  • Prohibition of negative or defamatory posts/comments; 
  • Establish the right of the Board to remove user comments that violate standards; and 
  • If feasible, put into place a procedure for screening content before publication.

The use of social media platforms can be great tools to keep your community members connected and engaged.  Be cautious and heed the advice that we give to our children – anything you put on the internet is forever, even if you delete it.  I always remember (for myself) and advise (for my clients) to THINK.  

  • T – Is it true? 
  • H – Is it helpful?
  • I – Is it inspiring? 
  • N – Is it necessary? 
  • K – Is it kind?

Having a policy will provide notice to owners in your community about the association’s use of social media and expectations.  Remember, one of the great things about community associations IS the community.  Grow it and cultivate it – and social media platforms, used smartly, can help you do that!  To help promote these principles in your community or for questions about the potential impact of using social media, contact your insurance agent (to ensure coverages) and legal counsel.  

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