In this increasingly communicative world, the age-old phrase, "Be careful what you say," may be due for a dust-off: "Be careful what you say, type, tweet, text, blog or e-mail."

And as social media blurs the line between personal conversations and business communications, companies and groups within the real estate industry and in other industries are working to define the gray areas and draw clear lines about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

In this increasingly communicative world, the age-old phrase, "Be careful what you say," may be due for a dust-off: "Be careful what you say, type, tweet, text, blog or e-mail."

And as social media blurs the line between personal conversations and business communications, companies and groups within the real estate industry and in other industries are working to define the gray areas and draw clear lines about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Adding to the urgency are Federal Trade Commission-proposed guidelines, scheduled to take effect Dec. 1, 2009, that relate to proper vs. improper use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising — and extend to new forms of media such as blogs.

The FTC notes that "the recent development of a variety of consumer-generated media poses new questions about how to distinguish between communications that are considered ‘endorsements’ … and those that are not."

And "the fundamental question is whether, viewed objectively, the relationship between the advertiser and the speaker is such that the speaker’s statement can be considered ‘sponsored’ by the advertiser and therefore an ‘advertising message,’ " according to the FTC guidelines.

"In other words, in disseminating positive statements about a product or service, is the speaker: (1) acting solely independently, in which case there is no endorsement, or (2) acting on behalf of the advertiser or its agent, such that the speaker’s statement is an ‘endorsement’ that is part of an overall marketing campaign?"

Such statements have won everything from applause to hisses from online commenters and commentators. Some critics worry that such guidelines may be overreaching and could restrain free speech, while supporters have welcomed the FTC’s guidance to clamp down on pay-per-play content passed off as opinions and commentary, and to curb covertly delivered marketing messages.

The growing use of social media prompted Leading Real Estate Companies of the World (LeadingRE), a global real estate network, to develop an optional social media policy and guidelines for consideration by its member firms.

The goal, said Eric Bryn, vice president of strategic development and intellectual property counsel for Leading RE, was to define some best practices without discouraging the use of social media.

"We don’t want to be too restrictive. We actually want to encourage brokers and sales associates to use this (online) medium," Bryn said. …CONTINUED

"It’s an incredibly marketing-rich environment," he noted. "Because of the potential for public-relations disasters or public-relations triumphs, we want to be able to encourage a set of guidelines that (say), ‘Think before you post, think again, and then post.’ "

He noted the very real potential to get into legal trouble through online communications as an impetus for the sample policy and guidelines.

Many real estate professionals have shown a natural business inclination toward engaging in online conversations through social networking. Real estate is an inherently social business, and interactions with consumers can begin at a personal level and then lead to business interaction.

Bryn noted that real estate agents and brokers tend to be "early adopters" when it comes to social media. "Naturally, they gravitate toward new forms of advertising and marketing."

The sample policy and guidelines, released last month, recognize that real estate professionals may be using Facebook, Twitter and their blog sites for a professional purpose, and "if that’s the case, and if you’re using the broker’s logo, then (your company may) want to put controls around that," he said.

Member firms can adapt and adopt the social media policy and guidelines to suit their own culture, he noted.

Bryn said that the "The timing was impeccable," for the release, given the pending FTC guidance and rising use of social media.

"We’ve been crushed with e-mails from the senior management layer of our firms, saying, ‘Thank you, we were just talking about this," he said. LeadingRE has about 600 member firms that together represent about 5,000 real estate offices and 150,000 sales associates.

The FTC’s guidance represents a sort of "warning shot across the bow" about that agency’s future enforcement related to online communications, Bryn said.

Also, the social media policy and guidelines take into account the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, which spell out proper conduct to ensure truth in advertising and marketing, and proper disclosure about professional status. …CONTINUED

Bryn said LeadingRE worked with the DLA Piper law firm to draft the guidelines, and a Q-and-A session was held earlier this week to engage in a discussion with member firms about the guidelines.

LeadingRE’s model policy states, "No communications on social media sites should be made as though the communications are ‘official’ statements of (company name) without the prior written authorization of (company name)," and "Any mention of (company name) must adhere to the brand guidelines including usages of trademarks and logos."

Also, "If you incorporate a trademark into a username with any social media site (including Twitter handles, Facebook pages, etc.), please remember that (company name) owns those sites and those sites must be approved by (contact name)."

The guidelines additionally request that agents, employees and independent contractors "submit a list of social media sites that you are currently using for professional purposes," and that failure to follow the social media policy and guidelines "when engaged in social media for professional purposes may result in disciplinary action or in termination of a relationship."

LeadingRE’s optional guidelines suggest using disclaimers when using social media sites for strictly personal uses, such as: "The views expressed herein are my personal views and do not reflect the views of (company name)."

And a bit of caution: "Assume that everything lasts forever on the Internet and it can come back to haunt you."

Inman News tech columnist Robert Hahn, using the example of an optional social media policy drafted by the Illinois Association of Realtors, recommended that organizations and companies not get too bogged down in legalese when drafting such policies, and not include ambiguous language that could be too far-reaching.

"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," Hahn contends in his column.

"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."

And LeadingRE notes that there are some basic rules of common sense that should be applied to social media participation. The guidelines suggest "be truthful," "be positive," "be ‘short and sweet,’ " "be up to date," "be honest," "be yourself," "know your audience," "write what you know," and "correct your mistakes," and "remember the golden rule," and "Would you say that to your mother?"

Bryn said that in addition to common-sense practices, there is a real need for companies to have a plan regarding online content that relates to them. "Let’s say a mistake happens. What’s your plan?" he said. "Someone is taking you on (online), trashing your brand. Do you respond?"

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