Apr 25, 2013
Accessible Tech: What and where to disclose online
25 Apr 2013
Posted by Andrew Kantor
This appeared in the April/May issue of Commonwealth magazine.
With more and more electronic communication being done in public — the “social” part of social media — you’ll find that you can never really remove your Realtor hat. That means you need to be extra careful when you’re writing an e-mail, crafting a blog post, or replying to a tweet.
And I don’t just mean “always be professional.” I mean that there are disclosure rules from both the Virginia Real Estate Board and the Realtor Code of Ethics that apply online whenever you engage in “advertising.”
And believe me, the definition of “advertising” is pretty broad.
But first, the basics. VREB regulations and the Code require that you disclose the following in any communication that could be construed as advertising:
- Your name
- Your firm name and where it’s located (either the main office or the office you work out of)
- What states or regions you’re licensed in
But that doesn’t mean you have to put all that information in every message.
The one-click-away rule: Those disclosures must be made either in the message itself or on a Web site that’s one click away from the message. (Twitter is an exception; more on that in a moment.)
As we’ll see, that makes meeting your disclosure requirements very simple.
This is the easiest one of all: Simply add a signature line to all your e-mails that includes the disclosure information. (We’re not talking paragraphs of legalese. Your non-business contacts will understand.)
Jane Doe, Realtor®
Schlobotnik Realty, Blacksburg
*Licensed in Virginia and North Carolina. *
If even that’s more than you’d like to stick on the end, just include a link to a Web page that contains it:
Learn more about how Schlobotnik Realty and I can help you at www.janedoerealtor.com/about.
That meets the Code’s requirement of having your firm name included, and it takes advantage of one-click-away to keep the whole disclosure thing down to one line.
Blog posts (including Tumblr)
Another easy one.
Whether you use Tumblr, have a blog on your company site, or run your own,the simplest way to meet your disclosure requirements is to make sure they appear on every page of your blog or site — in the sidebar, perhaps. Presto — your disclosures are taken care of.
A slightly less simple way: Have your blog software automatically add your disclosures — or a link to them — on every one of your posts. (How you do this depends on your site. Ask whoever manages it for you; it should be a simple process.)
If worst comes to worst, you can manually add the disclosures link to each post — just be sure to include your firm name. (See the e-mail example above.)
If you’re posting a message or reply to a public message board — on Reddit, for example, or a local news site’s forum, or someone else’s blog — you’ll need to manually add a disclosure link to the bottom of anything you write that could possibly be construed as real estate related. (You may want to create a simple text file with the information — “disclosures.txt” — so you can cut and paste it as needed.) Remember to include your firm name with the link.
Twitter presents a unique problem in that posts — tweets — are limited to 140 characters; adding a link to your disclosure page is pretty much impossible without severely limiting your tweeting ability.
That’s why the Code makes a specific (and simple) exemption for Twitter in the Code: Your individual tweets don’t need a link to your disclosure statement, but your Twitter *profile *page must have it.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter does allow you to include whatever you want on that profile page (well, up to 160 characters), so it’s easy to put the entire disclosure text right there.
Facebook makes things a little more difficult because there’s no “About Me” section on your main page. Therefore, unlike with Twitter, your disclosures will be more than one click away, as visitors will have to go to your “About” page.
That means — in order to meet your disclosure requirement, you need to put your firm name and a link to your disclosure page on every Facebook post that could be considered advertising. It might seem odd at first, but after a while your “friends” will expect it.
Pinterest, Flickr, and other image-oriented sites
If you use a photo- or video-sharing site, you’ll find that, like Facebook, they don’t always have a space on your profile page for your disclosures. (Flickr is a good example.)
That means visitors will have to click a separate link — e.g., “About Me” — to get there, which violates the one-click-away rule.
In those cases you’ll need to do what you do with Facebook: Include your firm name and a link to your disclosures in the caption of every photo or video. Annoying, yes. But that’s the rule.
Here a best practice: No matter what kind of online site you use — blog, Facebook, Flickr, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter — create separate business and personal accounts. Then, in the name of all that’s holy, keep them separate.
If your bestest friend in the world posts to your personal Facebook page about something even vaguely related to real estate, don’t respond there. Move the discussion to your professional page and put in your disclosures.
If that’s too much, then treat everything as if it’s business-related, and put your disclosure everywhere. Better safe than in front of an ethics panel.
What is advertising?
Imagine you’re the world’s pickiest person, or the state’s slimiest lawyer — what would you consider advertising? Sometimes it’s obvious, such as if you post a new listing.
Other times, not so much. For example, if you tweeted this:
Rams make the Final Four — now I really want that new 50″ HDTV! Send me some business, peeps!
That would be advertising. Ditto for a blog/Facebook post like this:
I’m tired of hearing how hard it is to get a mortgage. Just helped a young couple with so-so credit buy their first home. Sure, it took a little extra work with the lender, but I got to see the looks on their faces when we closed. It’s just not that bad!
And here’s an example from a Realtor’s Pinterest profile page:
Follow me into the lifestyle we enjoy in Virginia: four seasons of beauty. Message me for listings and updates!
“Message me for listings and updates.” Yep, that’s advertising… and it requires a disclosure.