Imagine spending your life working to bring positive change to your community. Suddenly, late one night your phone begins ringing with people asking if your office is behind a series of offensive and discriminatory posts on social media.
This was the situation Cape Coral RE/MAX agent James Warren experienced after a recent incident involving RE/MAX Realty Group in Fort Myers, Florida, who were blasted for posts critics within the LGBTQ community decried as “transphobic.”
“As a member of the LGBTQ community, a gay man and an advocate for transgender equality [the incident] hit home to a lot of my database. I had messages and calls from clients and friends asking if this was my office,” Warren said.
Warren felt that he had to respond to reassure the community that his office was not involved. After consultation with broker Yoselyn Hollow, he created a video commenting on the controversy and reassuring friends and followers that the transphobic comments were not a reflection on the RE/MAX brand as a whole.
“Unfortunately, the media generalized, identifying the agents in question just by the national brand and our local market. My broker and I elected to do a video. and we thought it would set the record straight and clear the air,” said Warren. “My broker is very supportive of all of us, even in our individual beliefs.”
Recovering your brand from controversy
Over the past year or two, we have seen an uptick in words and actions from real estate agents and brokers involving illegal and unethical behavior as well as language both in-person and online that is discriminatory and racially motivated.
Now, with the Fort Myers controversy, there is a new spotlight on discriminatory language and practices in the real estate industry.
Article 10 of the Realtor Code of Ethics covers discriminatory practices in employment and service to clients. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) included sexual orientation as a protected designation in 2011 and gender identity as a protected designation in 2013. Therefore, there is little controversy over whether or not the posts in particular — or any discriminatory posts in general — are appropriate or not.
The question becomes: What can an individual, who has built his or her business on a brand only to see that brand tarnished by the unethical behavior of others, do?
“Ultimately, it is up to the broker to decide what the brokerage response will be,” said Paul Saperstein of The Saperstein Group brokered by eXp Realty. “For the individual agent, go to your broker with your concerns, and be willing to follow their lead in the response. Many times, less is more, and commenting on a story can draw additional, unwanted attention.”
For some agents, the risk to the brand is all the more reason to be careful with branding in the first place.
“This is why it’s so important to establish yourself as your brand as early as possible,” said D.C.-area agent Alyssa Blevins. “I know that my clients associate me with my work ethic, attention to detail and commitment to them as clients and people first. They think of my brokerage second.”
Blevins says that an event like the Fort Myers RE/MAX Realty Group controversy offers an opportunity for reflection and evaluation. “Since we are individuals first, I think people should comment on these situations if they feel strongly it tarnishes their reputation by association. Make it clear on social media and to clients that this is not the behavior you expect from any fellow agent, much less one in your own company,” she said.
“Ultimately, if these kinds of things keep happening, it might be time to do some soul-searching and decide if it’s time to make a switch. At some point, saying nothing or ignoring it means you are willing to accept it,” Blevins said.
Warren also believes that it is essential to speak up in the face of this type of controversy. “Always speak your truth, and never back down from what you believe in. You can never please everyone, and it’s never easy to speak out on new and controversial issues, so always be true to yourself,” he said.
Warren says that speaking out is a way to “turn the negative into a positive outcome.” He believes that follow-up is necessary, along with positive actions to offset the harm caused by problematic language.
“In this situation, I feel we will get some positive actions,” Warren said. “In my second Facebook Live video, we had a mix of people, some people who have never interacted with a transgender person. It was eye opening for them. After the video I got messages from all over the U.S. talking about it in a positive way. So I hope it helps bring more people together,” Warren said.
Christy Murdock Edgar is a Realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant with Writing Real Estate. She is also a Florida Realtors faculty member. Follow Writing Real Estate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagr