Realtors apologize after including #AmberAlert in tweets about homes and new listings

Two Ontario real estate agents are under investigation by the provincial real estate council after issuing tweets that included the hashtag #AmberAlert — something that was trending on Twitter Friday after a car was stolen with a four-year-old girl inside it.

Police were searching for a 4-year-old girl when the tweets were published Friday morning

Wilma Fournier is one of two Royal LePage sales associates whose Twitter accounts included the hashtag #AmberAlert in promotional posts. Fournier apologized and said the tweet was published by a third party advertiser. (Twitter)

Two Ontario real estate agents are under investigation by the provincial real estate council after issuing tweets that included #AmberAlert — a hashtag trending on Friday after a car was stolen with a four-year-old girl inside it.

Royal LePage representatives Mark Hulst and Wilma Fournier removed the posts later in the morning, about two hours before the child was found unharmed.

Both the agents and the firm apologized, saying that a third party advertiser handled the brokerage's social media presence.

"Please bear with us as we are waiting for Rayman Solutions to write a proper apology for this horrible mistake," Fournier tweeted Friday afternoon. "We are terribly embarrassed."

'Reprehensible opportunism'

The Real Estate Council of Ontario received at least two complaints about the postings.

It's the first time the council — which oversees about 75,000 real estate agents — says it has encountered this, a practice dubbed by social media experts as hashtag hijacking.

"From our perspective as the regulator, this is reprehensible opportunism on the part of these two registrants," said Kelvin Kucey, the council's deputy registrar of regulatory compliance. "We are pleased, to some degree, that they have seen the error in their judgment and they have withdrawn those statements on public media."

When something like this happens — and it's a very serious hashtag and it's used in an inappropriate way — it works against the company.- Lowell Brown, social media strategist

The investigation will look into how and why this happened — and, if the Realtors are found to be in the wrong, there are "a full spectrum" of consequences, Kucey said. Those include a warning on the lighter end of the scale, while a fine could issued for more serious violations.

"In this instance, there is the potential of consumer harm, because one of the tweets advertised an open house and obviously we have concern on that particular client of that brokerage."

How would this happen?

There's a risk to outsourcing social media strategy if a company has not done its research on the agency it's hiring, social media strategist Lowell Brown said.

Lowell Brown, social media strategist and CEO of Going Social, said companies should research to whom they're outsourcing their brand management. (CBC)

Reputable companies know that co-opting a trending hashtag for their own promotion often backfires, because it's seen as being in poor taste, the CEO of Going Social said.

"They want more people seeing their posts in the hopes that, hey, this turns into business for them," he said. "The problem is when something like this happens — and it's a very serious hashtag and it's used in an inappropriate way — it works against the company."

Brown said he understands that not every company has the time, education or manpower to run its own social media accounts.

But he said that his advice would be to stay away from third party firms that jump on trending hashtags, unless they're being used in a conversational way.

"It can hurt them [and] they end up having to respond to it, to react to it, to apologize," he said. "There are people who are upset, because they see this was in really bad taste whether it was done accidentally or not."

Royal LePage Canada announced Friday afternoon that it planned to sever its relationship with Rayman Solutions, the company it says issued the tweets on behalf of the brokerage.

Fournier apologized after taking down the initial tweet, saying it was sent by advertiser Rayman Solutions. (Twitter)

"This was a lapse in judgment on the part of the brokerages' third party marketing agency, who created and implemented the Twitter posts without their review or approval," the statement said. "This type of behaviour does not reflect the values and code of conduct of Royal LePage and we are deeply embarrassed and sorry for the offence this has caused."

A staff member at Rayman Solutions who answered the phone there did not identify himself and would not agree to an interview. Instead, he apologized for the tweets and hung up.

With files from CBC's Makda Ghebreslassie