Lisa Prevost in Building Operations
Establishing a social media policy for a board-sanctioned website or Facebook page can “help protect the association, while allowing its members to express themselves within reason,” says Tod Meisner, the executive director for client leadership with Verge Pipe Media and a former director of digital marketing for a national property management company. “People can get very upset when they feel they aren’t allowed to express themselves.”
Co-op and condo board directors can’t control everything that’s said about them or their building in the vast, saucy, sometimes toxic, stew of social media. Such online platforms as City-Data.com, Nextdoor.com, and New York-centric Mycoop.com make it easier than ever for neighbors to actively network – and nitpick – both inside and outside their association. But directors can at least maintain some civility and limit liability on their own association sites by setting up some official rules of conduct. Here’s how:
Regulate Website Posts. A usage policy for an association website should be fairly straightforward, since most sites are not for inviting comments but for providing information. “In that case, what you would want to see is a policy for the person doing the posting, with respect to copyright law and prohibitions on sharing confidential information,” says David A. Menken, a lawyer affiliated with Smith Buss & Jacobs who advises corporate and nonprofit clients on information technology matters.
Set Facebook Ground Rules. An association-sponsored Facebook page or group, however, should include a more detailed policy setting ground rules for both the speech of the ownership and/or moderator and that of guests. The policy should also set the terms for access – “friend” requests should be granted only to association members/shareholders.
Assign a Moderator. A person or persons should be assigned to moderate comments and posts. “In most cases when I was consulted,” Meisner says, “we suggested that the board members or main office employees have administrator access.” Their moderation of content should not be subjective, however. Guidelines for acceptable – and unacceptable – comments and posts should be clearly stated on the page.
Those guidelines might prohibit content that is discourteous, for instance, or uses profanity, obscenity, or racial, ethnic or religious slurs. And the policy should spell out the consequences for commenters who violate those standards. Menken’s suggestion: “They get locked out of the site and can’t post there any longer.”
Rules for Board Members. Meisner says he has also advised on policies that outline expected behavior for board members. For example, board members might be required to be transparent in their online activity – they must disclose their board membership if they post about neighborhood issues or items up for a vote. If posting on a public social media platform, they must not divulge sensitive association information, such as legal matters.
Beyond that, associations really can’t expect to rein in shareholders’ private online activity. “You can’t limit the First Amendment,” says Stacey R. Patterson, an attorney with Ansell Grimm & Aaron.
In that same vein, if a board or one of its members feels mistreated by a commenter on an outside site, they shouldn’t automatically call in the lawyers. Feeling aggrieved isn’t enough to win a lawsuit. “Boards tend to feel that immediately if somebody writes something negative about them or something they’re doing, that it’s automatic defamation or slander,” Patterson says. “But there’s more involved – to prove defamation, the commenter has to actually cause damage to your person or your business.”
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