Social Media - Some Pros & Cons
I think we can all agree that social media is becoming more and more pervasive. What used to be an occasional diversion to reconnect with high school friends, has become a significant source of news and social and political engagement for everyone from the Greatest Generation to Gen Z’ers. Of course, this includes homeowners and board members, many of whom believe social media should be a public square to discuss and debate association issues, and even to allow owners to air grievances. However, whether or not social media is a good thing for community associations is debatable.
Social media can be used effectively by community associations, with positive results, particularly when used as one of several channels for dissemination of information. Communicating with association members is important. Associations that take the lead and work to communicate with owners can share information owners are entitled to, and being proactive may avoid some of the more commonly heard owner refrains, such as the Board is meeting in secret, or that the Board is conspiring against them. For most associations, posting on social media or direct messaging via social media will not constitute official “legal” notice, so keep that in mind.
Unfortunately, social media is not all cute puppy videos and fundraisers. For community associations, it can be problematic in several ways. When using social media, community associations have to consider the potential for uncivilized, hostile, or even defamatory comments on association-created social media posts or “discussion” groups. We’ve seen dialogue trend toward the gutter, with the loudest voices going back and forth, as if competing to post the most cutting and extreme comments. These exchanges can impact neighborhood harmony, turn friends to enemies and, worse, if the discourse is public, impact property values if the nastiness is out there for every potential purchaser to read (even if it isn’t indicative of the community as a whole, which it usually isn’t).
Problems seem to arise surrounding utilization of social media where owners can publicly post and comment. Thus, an association should be very careful, generally avoid, debate on social media. Some associations attempt to monitor and censure owners, but that often creates additional problems. Often, the best option is to utilize social media to disseminate information, rather than a platform for owners to engage in debates. The good old-fashioned letters to the board, board meetings, and annual or special meetings are still the best way we know to allow owners to have meaningful dialogue.
Owners may create their own social media “neighborhood” groups, and these present a unique set of issues. These groups might be used as a forum to organize opposition of a project, the board, or even individual board members. Certainly, owners have a right to their opinions and to share them with whomever will listen. However, the trouble arises when these individuals or groups purport to be Association “official” website, page or blog, potentially confusing the true account host’s identity. While a board may not be able to easily force owners to discontinue such usage, in some extreme situations it may be advisable for the board to request an owner clarify they do not speak on behalf of the association, or to notify all owners (by good old-fashioned U.S. Mail) that a particular person or group is unaffiliated with the association.
Associations should be proactive and provide their owners and residents the correct websites and links to official community social media pages. Boards should also have a policy on whether, and in what manner, the association will comment on social media. It can be tempting for a director to want to respond to certain comments or posts. But, a director should always consider whether their response is intended as their own, or the association’s, and make that clear in his or her comment.
If your association would like to discuss social media, and the opportunities and pitfalls that come with it, contact one of our attorneys.