When you got ready to leave home today, you knew there was the possibility that someone could wrongly come into your home to steal things, so you probably locked your door, and perhaps set an alarm. Then, when you got behind the wheel of your car, you knew there could be an accident, so you buckled your seat belt. No one is telling you not to leave home or not to drive, but both of these activities pose risks. Everyday we take risks, and the better informed we can be about risks, the smarter and safer we are.
The same is true for advertisers as they embrace social media to promote their apartment communities. Social media is a great innovation, but it does have its risks, and the better informed advertisers can be about those risks, the smarter and safer they are.
Remember that a website is a form of advertising. As a practical matter it is no different than any form of traditional advertising, and the same rules apply. The things you say must be true, because if they are not, it is libel; you have to be aware of consumer laws (watch out for sweepstakes that are really illegal lotteries); and, you have to honor the trademarks and copyrights of others.
And of course, don’t forget about fair housing considerations. The point of a website is to advertise the community; what is posted on a website (and that means both words and pictures) must therefore be fair housing compliant. Quite simply, that means that a “reasonable person” looking at the website cannot see anything that would suggest “any preference, limitation or discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin.” Therefore, the words that are used, the directions that are given, the symbols that are depicted, and the photos and pictures that are shown cannot indicate that type of preference, limitation or discrimination.
The bottom line is that if there are fair housing issues with a basic website, the apartment community will be liable, since this is essentially an “ad,” and the community (its owner or PMC) is the “publisher.”
But what about a website where others are able to post information or are invited to blog? Who is liable for what others post? The answer is “it depends.” It depends upon how much control the owner of the website (the “Publisher”) is exerting over the external posting by others. It’s all about control. The more the message is controlled, the more likely the accountability.
Now, what about Facebook®, Twitter™, YouTube™ or a blog? Are these a form of advertising? The answer to that question is “it depends.” It depends on what a judge or jury might say about this. The folks in the apartment industry who are using a fan page on Facebook or who are sending “Tweets” would ultimately have to admit that the ultimate goal is effective marketing of a community or PMC, and that sounds like advertising.
Social media can be a brilliant form of marketing, but people need to make informed business decisions. They need to know what questions they should be asking before they take the leap into social media, questions like:
- Who at the community/with the PMC will be its “voice”?
- Where will this “voice” be heard? On your own website or blog? Or will this “voice” speak through posts at the websites and blogs of others?
- If you will have your own website/blog, how much time will be committed to monitoring and promptly responding?
- If you will have your own website/blog, how much control do you plan to exert regarding what is posted by others?
- What will you do if someone says something bad about you or the community?
- What will you do if someone says something bad about their neighbors or prospects–a lie, a slur, even an over-the-top compliment?
- When is your employee your employee? Are you responsible for their on-line actions?
- When is your employee “on their own time”? Are you responsible for their on-line actions?
- Are you going to provide training for your employees on the proper use of social media as it relates to your website/blog?
- Are you going to provide training for your employees on the proper use of social media as it relates to the websites and blogs of others?
Lock your house? A good idea. Seatbelts–ditto. And take advantage of the wonders of social media and advertising, but do that with an understanding of the risks and a plan to address them.
REQUIRED LANGUAGE FOR ALL REPRINTING OF THIS ARTICLE: “Social Media- Don’t Take Risks” is written by Nadeen Green, Senior Counsel with For Rent Media Solutions. The information contained in this article is not to be considered legal advice, and the authors and their companies strongly suggest that you consult with your own counsel as to any fair housing questions or problems you may have.