"It’s too late to change events
It’s time to face the consequence
For delivering the proof
In the policy of truth."
–Depeche Mode, "Policy of Truth" (1990).

Writer, blogger and blog coach Frances Flynn Thorsen published a "Real Estate Social Media Policies Manual." It’s a 19-page PDF document, apparently, and I say "apparently" because I haven’t read it given that it cost $67 and I don’t have an advance copy or some such.

Correction: This column mischaracterized sample social media policy guidelines for real estate brokerage companies offered by the Illinois Association of Realtors. The sample policy is purely optional and has not been adopted or enforced by the association.

"It’s too late to change events
It’s time to face the consequence
For delivering the proof
In the policy of truth."
–Depeche Mode, "Policy of Truth" (1990).

Writer, blogger and blog coach Frances Flynn Thorsen published a "Real Estate Social Media Policies Manual." It’s a 19-page PDF document, apparently, and I say "apparently" because I haven’t read it given that it cost $67 and I don’t have an advance copy or some such.

But then, this column isn’t about that particular policy or manual (I’m sure it’s filled with all sorts of caramel goodness and sparkling wisdom). No, I’d rather talk about sample social media policy guidelines offered by the Illinois Association of Realtors for member brokerage companies, because they are filled with all sorts of fun advice.

Having fun with IAR

First, a general observation: If you’d like to create a policy of any kind — social media policy or otherwise — and you’d like people to actually read said policy, I’d recommend having someone other than a lawyer write it. Just sayin’. Here’s a sample passage from IAR’s sample social media policy:

"Agents/employees should not use e-mail, the Internet or social networking tools to discuss the business policies or practices of the company with any person outside the company without first clearing that with your managing broker. Agents/employees may discuss policies/practices of the company with a client or prospective client, but only through ‘private’ e-mail and not through the use of social networking tools."

Now that’s prose only a licensed attorney could love! Its utter banality is covered over by legalistic language ("business policies or practices of the company"), and enlivened with total confusion ("only through ‘private’ e-mail and not through the use of social networking tools.")

So if a company actually adopted such a policy, it appears that an agent would be prevented from discussing business policies — for example, the commission rate you might charge a seller — without first getting your managing broker’s permission.

And under such a policy you can discuss such policies with a client, but you can’t do it through Twitter or company e-mail or Facebook. If someone in your network sends you a private Facebook message asking how much you would charge to sell their house, you must fire up your Yahoo e-mail account to respond rather than using the built-in Facebook messaging system to do so. Got that?

Second, if you are going to have an attorney write social media policy guidelines, it might be a good idea to show the result to your teenage daughter to see if it passes the "Teenager Laugh Test." Here’s a gem from the IAR sample policy for brokerage companies:

"Agents/employees shall review the content of any Internet site to which they might link. Agents/employees shall obtain the consent of the site owner before linking."

OK, you can stop laughing now. Really. You’re not a teenage girl, so stop giggling! God forbid you have to think about linking to Wikipedia in a blog post, or want to embed a YouTube video. …CONTINUED

You have to review the content … and if you’ve only "reviewed" less than 1 percent of the total entries on Wikipedia, well, you can’t be said to have reviewed squat now can you? Oh, and good luck on that "obtaining consent" thing.

With these two sentences, the sample policy more or less destroys the utility of Twitter as a tool for sharing. That there is one fine sample policy.

Third, and finally — although it’s really fun and easy to make jokes at this sample policy’s expense (sorry for that) — if your goal in setting up a social media policy is really to tell people not to do social media, it would save a lot of trees to have a one-line Social Media Policy: "Just Say No."

And to extend it somewhat, if your goal with your policy is to try to impose some top-down control over your people and what they can say and how they can say it … well, might as well go with "Just Say No."

Social media is not a channel — it’s a mindset

What is bizarre is how many people apparently believe that "social media" — a term that is tough to pin down when you try to define it — is some sort of a magical new medium where old rules don’t apply, so you’d better restate the old rules just in case!

IAR’s sample company policy for social media actually includes a provision against using social media in a way that is prohibited by law or otherwise illegal. As if you’d go to jail for selling client Social Security numbers via fax machine, but if you post them on your blog you’re in the clear?

Policies that have to tell you to be truthful in advertising in social media pretend as if social media is a sort of Wild West where no rules exist. Things could not be further from the truth.

Defamation is still defamation, fraud is still fraud, and unethical behavior is still unethical behavior no matter what the "channel" or the technology tool. If you can’t do it using parchment and ink, you can’t do it using Twitter.

What all these policies are missing is the fundamental understanding of "social media" as shorthand — a bad one, too, like "War on Terror" — for a new mindset, a new way of thinking, a new way of interacting, and a new way of communicating with other people.

It means treating other people as human beings and treating yourself as a human being. They’re not just walking wallets you need to somehow seduce into buying a house, and you’re not just a Realtor trying to make a buck.

They’re people, you’re a person, and sometimes you’re going to relate on a commercial level, while other times you’re going to be joking about the Detroit Lions. Social media means being unafraid of our essential humanity, even when we’re doing business. …CONTINUED

How do you hope to control humanity through policies and manuals?

The policy that makes sense

This is not to say that you should take a totally anarchic take on all things "social media." After all, if you’re a broker you have legal liability for things your agents say and do. But in such cases, start with the essential truths of what you’re trying to achieve: You want your people to connect with other people as people, but you don’t want them saying or doing stupid things they ought not to be saying or doing.

So, some thoughts and suggestions.

First, read this wonderful post on Mashable. The real key insights are: "Be responsible," "Exercise good judgment," and "Protect confidential and proprietary information."

Note that these three things are presumably things you’d want your people to do in every aspect of their job, not just while on Twitter.

Second, note that the sample social media policy from Headset Bros that the Mashable post links to is a single page, and that the entire policy can be summed up in a single sentence: "Never post anything you would be afraid for your Mom to see."

Third, punish those who get out of line. The latitude provided by such wide guidance also means that you, the manager/owner, will have wide latitude in deciding what is and is not acceptable.

Social media is a mindset and it’s a part of the culture of your company. It will necessarily be a bit hazy, a bit soft around the edges, and be a matter of judgment calls. If your people understand that they have wide latitude to communicate, to relate to customers, partners, co-workers, and the public as human beings, but that they’ll also face consequences if they do something stupid, they will find a natural equilibrium. Pursue the "policy of truth," but know that there may be consequences.

In fact, you could do a lot worse for a social media policy than to simply copy and paste the lyrics to Depeche Mode’s "Policy of Truth" into the document:

"Now you’re standing there tongue-tied
You’d better learn your lesson well
Hide what you have to hide
And tell what you have to tell."

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.


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