It comes as no surprise that some tools of technology and communication have made our lives easier in many respects. However, the use of blogs, e-bulletin boards, group e-mail accounts, etc., by homeowners associations can also pose certain risks that may well outweigh the benefits of their use. Knowing some of those risks can help an association's Board of Directors make informed choices about whether to promote the use of such tools of communication.
Blogs provide a great platform for "average Joes" (or "Janes") to express opinions and distribute those opinions quickly and easily. However, that speed and ease can also pose challenges for homeowners associations. Inaccurate information can be published, and, as with "all things internet," once published, cannot be "unpublished." For example, a person posting a blog entry may not have the most current information or may not have all the facts. Publishing opinions or encouraging association members to take a certain action or support a certain position based upon inaccurate or incomplete information can lead to dissent and chaos. This is especially true in associations, where owners have significant emotional ties to their homes and the activities of the association governing their actions. Once the inaccuracies or "rants" are published, it is extremely difficult to stop the snowball effect or even to correct the inaccuracies. Some owners may even believe that the association "changed its tune" only because of a blog post when, in fact, an erroneous blog post created discord where none existed or needed to exist. Even after the "corrections" are made, the inaccurate information is still "out there," and may crop up at any time, potentially forcing an association to revisit the issue repeatedly. There are far better forums available for distributing information to owners, including Board meeting minutes, newsletters, etc.—all of which should be reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors before being provided to association members.
E-bulletin boards, Facebook pages, etc., can also pose hazards for an association. Since it is difficult to monitor and control what is posted on such media, associations that establish such forums may find that disgruntled homeowners use the media to spread misinformation. Associations certainly don't want to provide a forum for members to disseminate inappropriate statements (whether they be racial slurs, sexual content, inaccurate information or defamatory statements). Even the most stringent privacy settings can let some information through. Once posted, inaccurate or inappropriate postings can be difficult to remove. Further, if the site is sponsored by the Association, one might argue everything posted there is approved by the Association – which of course may or may not be the case. This could leave the Association open to liability for statements of individual homeowners. Most associations that make the decision to establish such forums often quickly regret the decision and take the boards/pages down shortly after setting them up. However, they often deal with the fallout from postings for some time after the site is disabled. With the number and variety of issues facing associations every day, most associations find their time is better spent addressing more pressing issues and avoiding the minefields e-bulletin boards and association Facebook pages often become.
Some associations have established group e-mail accounts—with disastrous results. Some owners "forget" that the message is being sent to all owners, and disclose confidential data or make inappropriate statements about neighbors or directors that the sender, of course, never intended for the offended party to see. As with bulletin boards and Facebook pages, if the association is sponsoring the group e-mail account, the association could be faced with claims that, as sponsor of the account, it has responsibility for all e-mails sent to the group, including those originating from sources other than the Association. (Even if untrue, such allegations can significantly undermine an association's effectiveness and efficiency.) Most associations find that e-mails sent to the Board (or the association's management agent) via the association's website provide the intended method of easy communication without the unintended result of inappropriate messages shared with all members.
For most associations, establishing a members-only website provides the information owners need and want, while avoiding some of the pitfalls of other forms of media. Associations can post their governing documents, Board and Association meeting minutes, notices of meetings and other important information for members, which offers association members a convenient resource for such data and a quick and simple means of distributing information to all members. Associations can include a method for members to contact the Association on the site as well (usually through an e-mail that is delivered to the management company or designated Board member), which also provides members with a convenient, easy way for members to communicate questions and concerns to the Association in a safe, secure manner.
When used appropriately, technology can offer significant enhancements to the services provided by an association to its members. However, not all tools of technology and social media are appropriate for use by associations. Boards need to be aware of both the benefits and the risks of using any tool of technology. In some cases, the risks simply outweigh the possible benefits, making "doing things the old-fashioned way" the best choice for the association.