Social Media’s Power Is Tempered by Risk, Expert Says

Even as organizations have embraced tweets, Facebook posts and other social media tools as central elements of their communications strategies, many are not paying enough attention to making sure the information they put out sends the message they intend. The result has been a slew of embarrassing, offensive and otherwise inappropriate information that organizations have had to remove and apologize for—problems that might have been avoided had the people who posted the material had proper training and gotten approval for the information before it went up.

That was the message Don Heider, dean of the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago and a social media ethics expert, shared with approximately 180 REALTOR® association communication staff who gathered last week in Chicago for the NAR Communication Directors Institute.

NAR Communication Directors Institute

“There seems to be a lack of training and editing,” an oversight that is leading people who handle social media to sometimes post information that, while perhaps factually correct, can be taken out of context and cause offense, says Heider.

Pointing to a series of what he terms social media “epic fails,” where prominent organizations or individuals have had to retract posts and issue public apologies, Heider says people who handle social media for companies and nonprofit organizations often don’t have the life experience to know that an image they post or a comment they make may be inappropriate or even offensive.

“We live in a world now where one tweet and your life can be over,” says Heider, founder of Loyola’s Center for Digital Ethics & Policy.

Don Heider, dean of the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago, speaks during the 2017 NAR Communication Directors Institute

Don Heider, dean of the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago, speaks during the 2017 NAR Communication Directors Institute

The challenge organizations face is that in the social media age, they often can’t risk waiting to post information, Heider says. This means that developing an effective approval system requires striking a balance between ensuring accuracy and proper context with the need to get material out as quickly as possible. “If you’re trying to get stuff out, it can’t sit on somebody’s desk for a week,” he says. “That system for editing and approvals can’t be so onerous that you never get anything out. So it has to be quick. You have to have somebody who will approve it in a timely fashion.”

Heider suggests developing a set of guidelines that govern what your organization posts on social media. In addition, make sure you have a diverse team that can evaluate information from multiple points of view to keep from inadvertently posting something that could be taken the wrong way by someone, he adds.

It’s also essential to monitor what people are saying about your organization on social media, Heider advises. “Our worst nightmare as communicators is not to be ahead of the story. We want to know as soon as possible. The most devastating cases happen when something trends and we don’t know it’s trending.”

Also be sure to have a response plan in place ahead of time so you can act if someone in your organization posts something that shouldn’t have gone out, or information from another source demands a response, Heider says. “Mistakes happen. I get that. But it’s how we respond to the mistake and how quickly we respond and how sincerely we respond,” he says. “If we don’t know about it, we can’t do any damage control.”

Sam Silverstein

Sam Silverstein is a writer-producer for the National Association of REALTORS®. He is based in Washington can be reached at

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