A homeowner in Nashville was threatened recently with legal action by her HOA for using the name of her subdivision on her personal Facebook neighborhood page.
A $15,000 suit was filed a few years ago by a vacation-condominium owner over negative social media comments made by a guest.
The online airing of New York City co-op residents’ internal dirty laundry has boiled over into lawsuits and even coverage in The New York Times.
If I have communicated anything thus far in my HOAs Gone Haywire series, it’s that HOA and COA managed communities are in fact highly regulated businesses charged with protecting the property values of homeowners. The conflicts, unexpected costs and legal imbroglios — from the benign, like fines for putting out the wrong color trash can, to the serious, like being foreclosed on for late Association dues — that appear in the media regularly and that mar the intent of managed communities come about almost entirely from a lack of understanding on the part of homeowners as to how managed communities run.
As complicated and unruly as managed communities can be — if only because homeowners and Board members are not fully schooled on their CC&Rs — social media can add a whole new dimension of unnecessary madness.
Here’s why: social media has changed the way practically all forms of communication happen, save babies crying (but they’ll probably be uploading their feelings soon, too).
Naturally, social media is entering the picture and influencing how Association-managed communities communicate. Emerging social media conundrums include everything from Board members speaking for the Association on their personal Facebook pages and social media fights between neighbors spilling out into the media (and tarnishing the reputation of those communities in the process) to Board social media channels turning into de facto Board meetings that break state laws and CC&R protocols.
Which brings me to the essential conflict between the nature of social media and how HOA or COA managed communities run. Association managed communities are highly regulated, especially when it comes to communication. If Board members so much as chat about the neighborhood at a bar, it could constitute a quorum and break state laws because the membership wasn’t notified. Meanwhile, social media is about as regulated as a red light district in South East Asia — you can get away with anything.
As the head of The Melrose Management Partnership, I have managed over 200,000 dwellings on behalf of well over a thousand Associations, as well as overseen Melrose franchisees who manage dozens of communities themselves. And it is my professional opinion that social media and managed communities mix about as well as texting and driving… the mere existence and motivations of the two are mutually incongruent.
For example, we are all familiar with people who run roughshod in their personal lives with social media by blurting out opinions, announcing events, “liking” and commenting indiscriminately, and taking pictures and filming as if every day is a walk down the Oscars red carpet. I would describe it as the equivalent of communication incontinence.
You can’t do that in an Association-managed community. For instance, homeowners cannot blurt out opinions in Board meetings — in fact, homeowners are often not even allowed to speak, unless given permission. The decisions a Board makes have nothing to do with whether a homeowner “likes” or doesn’t like them, but rather what was voted on is in accordance with the Developer-written CC&R regulations. There have to be paper trails — remember those??? — for everything from ballots going out to fines for parking cars in the wrong place. Even the seemingly inconsequential act of filming on your smartphone usually requires Board approval and acknowledgement if done at a meeting.
Let me put it to you this way: if an Association/homeowner dispute goes to the court and the judge says, “Did you give the homeowners adequate notice to paint their house?” you have to be able to cough up physical records that letters went out return receipt requested. A Facebook comment won’t cut it.
Therefore, when it comes to HOA and COA communications, continence is key. After all, you don’t see Apple or T-Mobile executives getting into Twitter fights about how much money should go into social media advertising and how much into print. That’s because those are businesses, and those kind of debates stay behind closed doors. As they should. The same applies to Association-managed communities.
The larger issue is that there are few, if any, state laws written to govern what can and can’t be done in regards to social media and managed communities. And, believe me, Developers who write the CC&Rs are thinking about things like deed restrictions and architectural approval — not whether Sally the Board secretary has the right to Tweet her thoughts about the decision to put in speed bumps.
As a result, unregulated social media communications in managed communities can cause inflamed neighborhood tensions, unforeseen insurance liabilities and even lawsuits. In addition, the social media airing of community issues can smear the reputation of a neighborhood and have an adverse effect on property values, which we can all agree is the very reason for having deed restricted communities in the first place. Simply put, HOA social media done wrong can defeat the very purpose of living in an Association-managed community.
The upshot is that the protocols and legalities with regard to social media and Association- managed communities are evolving, even if they’re murky and, often, a straight up mess.
With that in mind, here is a general guideline to managing the slippery slope of social media and HOAs:
· Put a leash on social media by writing new restrictions to govern it: If your Board lets social media run its typical chaotic course, that’s exactly what it will cause — chaos. The way to prevent that is to write new restrictions on social media and have the Board adopt them. Restrictions on whether a Board can or cannot have an official social media channel, whether a Board member can or can’t have their own independent social media channels representing the Association, what can and can’t be communicated on a Board’s Facebook page, etc., are all ways of curbing social media mayhem. They’re also how you get social media in line with legal procedures, such as how to notice a resident of a late fee, or what constitutes a Board meeting. Any Association entering the realm of social media should be extremely cautious, and carefully crafted restrictions are the first step.
· Keep it vanilla: I can tell you from having managed thousands of Associations over the years that even newsletters can be fraught with potential threats: liabilities, lawsuits, and inflamed neighborhood dramas are exacerbated in even official communications. So if your Board uses, say, Facebook to communicate to the neighborhood, keep it light and focus on facts: report on a meeting about when garbage cans can be left out or what time of the night cars have to come in off the street, not someone’s opinion about it. Discussing anything in a newsletter or on social media just opens up a can of worms called opposing sides.
· Keep Association records the old fashioned way… in boxes: Whatever your Association does with social media, don’t use it for record keeping or official communications. In the state of Florida, for instance, there is a law that Association records can’t be kept further than twenty miles from the community. So if a Facebook comment or post is used in lieu of physical records, you can find yourself in a heap of trouble. Same goes for sending out ballots, fines or announcements… they need to go by snail mail (or in line with emerging electronic voting laws) not SnapChat.
· Curb commenting: Everybody knows by now that most people have two personalities — the one they show in public, and the one they show on social media. The magic of invisibility behind the keyboard can bring out the worst of people. People who are nicey-nicey in person will savagely go after and tear down anyone or anything they see posted. Believe me, no Association wants this kind of social media schizophrenia on their hands. The way to counteract this phenomenon is to have an Administrator carefully vet comments so that nothing negative or inflammatory gets posted.
· Keep it private: The best way to keep an Association’s Facebook page from turning into social media mayhem is by making it private and having members agree to certain stipulations when they join. In other words, if you don’t want neighbors getting into comment fights over what color the new club house should be painted — something that is hard enough to decide on when everyone is behaving themselves at Board meetings — get members to agree beforehand that they won’t.
· Whatever you do, make the neighborhood look good: The one thing that everyone in an HOA or COA managed community can agree on is working toward maintaining property values. So whatever your Board does or whatever you personally do on social media to represent the neighborhood, make it look good. The Association’s and the homeowner’s social media representations of the community should be considered marketing. If someone is looking at buying property in your community and Googles it, you want them to think it’s Leave It To Beaver meets the Brady Bunch… not the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills meets WWE SmackDown.
When it comes to Association-managed communities and social media, the one thing you have to keep in mind is that running an Association is running a business, pure and simple. And you have to run your social media and consider its impact like it’s a part of that business. Of course, social media and its effect on how Associations hold meetings, establish quorums, interface with members, etc. is evolving. But if you manage all Association social media like you would manage any business communications, then it will do its job of helping maintain property values… not dragging the community down into the storm water drain of a Twitter fight.