Social media can be a tempting resource for licensees who seek immediate gratification for questions or problem-solving. Reliance upon Facebook groups is growing. Not so long ago, posting anything online even remotely related to a transaction was taboo, and with good reason. Public discussion of any details (past or present) was considered a violation of fiduciary duties -- even when names and addresses were never mentioned, as an agent's identity alone could provide context clues sufficient to inappropriately link back to transaction information.
Social media has opened up a can of worms in that respect. Closed online groups allow for industry pillow talk behind the veiled curtains of protective settings. The daily stream of "questions and answers" posted online is justified and categorized under a label of "collective learning" for the audience in each forum.
One of the most dangerous trends in online information exchange is the trust that licensees put into these groups, and the often inadvertently bad and wrong answers received from group members. Armchair quarterbacks tend to be quick to give answers without fully reading questions, and without prerequisite knowledge to answer.
Why Don't Agents Go To Their Brokers / Brokerage for Answers?
There are several common reasons why licensees turn to Facebook instead of seeking guidance from their brokers/brokerages. These generally include accessibility, the immediacy of response, avoidance of scrutiny or anticipated criticism, as well as emotional needs (trust for the online community, their desire for attention and interaction, or a wish to glean multiple perspectives).
Agents naively underestimate the harm that can come from subscribing to the information in online groups. Believing and acting upon inappropriate answers caused by lack of context, lack of expertise, and lack of state-specific knowledge (among other things) can lead to issues of malpractice and liability for agents and their sponsoring brokers.
Agents Posting Questions - What did your broker have to say about your question? Did you try your broker first? Does your broker know you are seeking "help" from social media groups instead of coming to them? Does your broker have a policy in place prohibiting that? Did you discuss the answers you received with your broker before acting on the "advice"? If you cannot reach your broker (absentee) or get help from your brokerage, why are you still with that firm?
Agents Answering Questions - What qualifies you to answer the posted question? Are you sure your answer is true, accurate, correct, compliant, and relevant to the question that was asked? Are you giving legal advice (always a no-no)? Are you inappropriately advising another broker's sponsored agent instead of referring that agent back to his or her broker?
Moderators / Group Owners - Is the scope of the group set to limit inappropriate levels of participation, as well as to uphold standards of practice and the code of ethics? Do you monitor for and correct (or remove) misinformation? Do you close discussions and point agents back to their brokers when questions necessitate redirection?
Brokers - Do you have an updated policy and procedure manual that addresses your agents' social media participation, particularly with transaction-related questions? Are you aware that your agents are participating in such forums? Do you know how their questions reflect on you and your firm? Are you fully cognizant of the liability you could incur from agents who seek education and answers outside of your direction? Do you care?
Friends and Colleagues, guard your practice and guard your minds. Seek out answers first from your broker/brokerage. That is their role, their responsibility, and their purpose. Texas REALTORS® may also reach out to the Texas Association’s Legal Hotline at 512-480-8200 for trustworthy information about real estate transactions. Other states may have similar resources.
Try to think about this in the context of parenting... parents want their children to come to them first for answers to their questions. Likewise, nobody has the best interests of clients and sponsored agents at heart more than the broker of record. The absence of advice can be far better than wrong advice... So even if it means having the patience to pursue the path your broker has set up to facilitate questions, the best advice is to follow that path ahead of all others.