By Curtis G. Kimble.
I attended a great event today held by the Utah Chapter of CAI where we had a panel of HOA professionals discuss and respond to questions about the use of social media in homeowner associations. I moderated the discussion and offered a legal perspective.
To me, social media is anything technology based that creates a community of some form and allows for a degree of interactive communication. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are obviously social media, but any form of instant, electronic communication, such as email or a website, has benefits and risks that are worthy of consideration by an HOA.
It became quite clear in the discussion today that utilizing various forms of social media, or even just one form, can be an extremely valuable and effective tool for communicating and conveying information, encouraging owner involvement, and building community. It can be much more effective, cheaper and easier than traditional methods such as newsletters, sporadic word of mouth and hard copy mailings.
An open line of communication with owners is arguably the single greatest factor in minimizing disputes and creating satisfaction and harmony within a community. The goal of any board should be to reach as many owners as possible. To do that, an association should consider any widely used method of communication. Social networking sites can be great for quickly and easily sending out bits of information, meeting reminders, notice of community events and success stories. Nothing beats the convenience of having the association’s governing documents right there on the association website or of submitting and receiving requests for maintenance or complaints through an electronic form on the website.
However, it’s critical that social media is created, published and updated correctly, carefully and reasonably diligently. For instance, if governing documents are posted online, care should be taken by the association to ensure they are always up to date and that they are accurate and complete copies.
Social media can even be an effective way for members of an association to engage in conversation. Facebook and other platforms allow owners to post comments, questions, pictures, and other content. But, this is also where the legal issues exponentially increase. Associations that maintain social networking sites are subject to the same liability risks as any other company or person that distributes information. Risks include potential liability for claims of libel or defamation, copyright infringement (for reproducing content without permission), plagiarism, interference with contractual relations, emotional distress, and invasion of privacy, among others.
Federal law offers some protection from these claims where the content was posted by third parties, but if such law applies, it will only be a defense for the association and won’t prevent the lawsuit from being filed and having to be defended by the association in the first place. It’s important to use a disclaimer on the site, use privacy controls, and review comments before they are posted.
A good social media policy is essential and should, at a minimum: define and limit who can access or post on the site; prohibit false, offensive, disparaging or potentially defamatory posts or publication of any confidential or private information; establish the board’s right to remove posts or content that violates the policy and the right to revoke access to users who violate the policy; and establish appropriate disclaimers (the views expressed do not represent the official position of the association, and so forth). In the end, the risks should be able to be mitigated by the association, depending on their approach.
Social media isn’t a mere trend or something will go away if you ignore it. Rather, if you ignore it, the risk is that you will be ignored as younger generations and an increasingly faster paced world demand the convenience and benefits of social media as a primary form of communication. So, as an effective and valuable tool, every association should consider using social media and determine if it could provide a benefit to them, but it must be used correctly and with care.