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2011-02-28 22:48:17

Zebragate – A Social Media Stampede and Branding Calamity

The weekend’s real estate social media buzz was dizzying. A popular Realtor/blogger found himself a defendant in a lawsuit alleging trademark infringement. Daniel Rothamel  of Virginia stands in the center of a firestorm  following a stiff legal salvo from The Lones Group in Bellingham, WA.

I am not going to comment on the merits of the lawsuit. I will not make a public judgment based upon the written complaint. My judgments in this article relate solely to the social media response. Lots of very nice people issued very poor judgment online.

Blog posts were launched in Rothamel’s defense, including a new blog housing a well intentioned legal defense fund to help defray the defendant’s costs. Hundreds of his online friends supported him with words of love and encouragement and donations. Some people changed their social media avatars, boasting new zebra skins to show their support for a man who enjoys a sterling reputation and deep affection nationwide.

In the meantime, the real estate industry earns a valuable lesson in trademark and copyright. That’s a very good thing, copyright and trademark infringement is rampant among Realtors and every ounce of consciousness raising coming out of any event is a healthy thing for an industry that issues widespread, callous disregard for intellectual property rights.

There will be serious branding consequences for many of the people involved in the matter, including the parties to the lawsuit and others who jumped into the fray.  There are four serious branding casualties coming out of the weekend stampede:

  1. The Lones Group was tried and executed in the court of public opinion and search engine spiders.  A search for their name on Google yields a first page of links that is devastating to their reputation online.  
     
  2. I have a view contrary to popular opinion about Daniel Rothamel’s benefit in this mess. He enjoys a high national profile, but a legal defense fund makes him look needy and weak, not the best position going into a legal proceeding. Rothamel has a part-time social media gig with Inman News, who released the story. Was the social media circus a planned event?  I’m not sure Net history will be kind to the Virginia Zebra if media manipulation is part of his plan of action to reconcile a lawsuit.
     
  3. National Assn. of Realtors (NAR) takes a serious branding hit following a weekend when high profile Realtors, architects and certified instructors of the new e-PRO program, and the group’s own social media guru fanned the fires.  The Realtor Code of Ethics suffered knockdown blows to Article 12 and Article 15 in the online brawl.
     
  4. RE dot net is a phrase reserved for early adopters in the real estate social media space. At one time it was a mark of pride. In the last couple of years, RE .net notables distanced themselves from the group following online faux pas and controversy. The Zebra trademark folderol sees more distance from key players and early adopters, and increased skepticism offline about the value of online engagement.   
     
Bloggers craft posts with keyword laden titles and text in a transparent campaign to destroy the plaintiff’s online reputation. They are succeeding brilliantly. Here is page one of Google today showing a search for The Lones Group. Here is page two. The RE .net knows its stuff when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO). 

Real estate blogs from one end of the continent to the other celebrate successful  attempts to stuff Google and destroy The Lones Group’s reputation. One blog commenter noted “TheZebraReport.com” was an unclaimed domain on GoDaddy, another tried to purchase, and a third cheered him on, saying, "Go for it!"

If a REALTOR purchased that domain name, Denise Lones will have an EXCELLENT case with a Professional Standards panel. REALTORS cannot purchase domain names applied to other brands for the purposes of (1) pointing those domains or (2) squatting on those domains.

I’m not qualified to render expert opinion on Ms. Lones’ prospects with her lawsuit against Rothamel. I am qualified to say that she has an excellent opportunity to pursue recourse against many Realtors who have trampled the Realtor Code of Ethics in a stampede to discredit her. Additionally, her attorney may not have to look hard to find  evidence of defamation in the real estate blogosphere.

The following sections of the Realtor Code of Ethics will be the focus of much discussion and controversy in the days ahead.
Article 12 
REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations. REALTORS® shall ensure that  their status as real estate professionals is readily apparent in their  advertising, marketing, and other representations, and that the recipients of all real estate communications are, or have been, notified that those communications are from a real estate professional. (Amended  1/08)
 
Standard of Practice 12-10
REALTORS®’ obligation to present a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public includes the URLs and domain names they use, and prohibits REALTORS® from engaging in deceptive or unauthorized framing of real estate brokerage websites; manipulating (e.g., presenting content developed by others) listing content in any way that produces a deceptive or misleading result; or deceptively using meta tags, keywords or other devices/methods to direct, drive, or divert Internet traffic, or to otherwise mislead consumers. (Adopted 1/07)
 
Article 15 
REALTORS® shall not knowingly or recklessly make false or misleading  statements about competitors, their businesses, or their business practices.  (Amended 1/92) 
 
Standard of Practice 15-2
The obligation to refrain from making false or misleading statements about  competitors, competitors’ businesses and competitors’ business practices  includes the duty to not knowingly or recklessly publish, repeat, retransmit, or republish false or misleading statements made by others. This duty applies whether false or misleading statements are repeated in person, in writing,  by technological means (e.g., the Internet), or by any other means.  (Adopted 1/07, Amended 1/10)
 
Standard of Practice 15-3
The obligation to refrain from making false or misleading statements about  competitors, competitors’ businesses, and competitors’ business practices  includes the duty to publish a clarification about or to remove statements made by others on electronic media the REALTOR® controls once the REALTOR® knows the statement is false or misleading. (Adopted 1/10)
 
(Frances Flynn Thorsen is a writer and blogger and co-author of Real Estate Social Media Policies and Procedures Manual.)

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