Social Media Policy Guidelines for Notaries
These social media policy guidelines for notaries are based on the April 2018 draft social media guidelines for judges from the United Nations, on the Global Judiciary Integrity Network website. A final draft is expected in November 2019. Several states and the American Bar Association (ABA) have issued advisory ethics opinions on the judicial use of social media sites.
The National Notary Association’s (NNA) Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility, is based on ten guiding principles of responsible conduct. It defines Standards of Professional and Ethical Practice that reduce liability risk and litigation, avoid discrimination, maintain privacy, professionalism, competence, and impartiality, and deter fraud and undue influence.
Section I-C-1, Dignity of Office, states: The Notary shall conduct himself or herself with a dignity befitting a public officer and in a manner that does not bring disrepute or discredit upon the notarial office.
The code comments state that notaries are obligated to comport themselves in a professional manner and to avoid and not tolerate actions that tend to denigrate the office, including a flippant attitude or disrespect for the office. Advertising should be done in a professional, dignified and tasteful manner.
Dignity comes from the Latin word dignus meaning worthy. A public official should act in a calm, serious, ethical, competent and trustworthy manner, worthy of honor or respect.
“Dignity does not consist of possessing honors, but in deserving them.” Aristotle
The Colorado Notary Handbook states that it is critical for a notary public to perform duties in an unbiased, disinterested manner that merits the trust, confidence and respect appropriate to the office.
Notaries must comply with anti-discrimination laws in places of public accommodation.
Social media has become an important method for collecting, communicating and disseminating information and opinions.
Public officials must earn and maintain the public trust and respect by demonstrating professionalism, competence, ethics, impartiality, compliance, and preserving the dignity of the office in both offline and online interactions.
The way a notary uses social sites may affect the public perception and confidence of all notaries generally. Comments by a notary may be perceived to be biased or inappropriate or can create opportunities to show subject matter expertise, and increase the public’s understanding of notary laws, best practices and procedures.
Different social communication platforms are available, with each platform offering different opportunities for interaction, content type, and frequency, and targeting different audiences.
Spelling and grammar checkers may be used to create error-free content for a professional, competent appearance.
Risks and Opportunities in Use of Social Media
1. Community Participation. Notaries should be involved in the communities they serve, including appropriate participation in social media. But such involvement and participation must maintain public confidence in notaries and the integrity of the notarial system.
3. Incriminating Evidence. Notaries should have at least a basic knowledge of social media in general, including how user-generated content may show evidence of inappropriate behavior.
4. Risk and Reward. Notaries should learn the benefits, risks, and pitfalls of their personal use of social media.
5. Dignity of Office. The use of social media by individual notaries should maintain the moral authority, integrity, decorum, and dignity of their office.
6. Expert Assistance. Notaries are encouraged to seek expert assistance when needed in understanding notarial questions and could consider the opportunities presented by social media and online communities.
7. Education. Experienced notaries and training instructors may help to educate other notaries, the public or engage in public commentary that may include the use of social media in addition to other forms of communication. Notaries who are not licensed attorneys may not give legal opinions or legal advice.
8. Notary Authorities. Institutional (as opposed to individual) use of social media by notary regulators, educators, and associations, in appropriate circumstances, can be a valuable tool for promoting issues such as public confidence in, understanding of, and respect for notaries.
9. User Profiles. Notaries and entities creating online blogs, comments and forums should consider the risks of allowing users to use their social media profiles to access such sites, in particular with regards to social media platforms of data aggregation.
Notary Identification on Social Media
10. Real Names. Notaries may use their real names and disclose their official status on social media, provided that doing so does not violate ethical standards and existing rules.
11. Pseudonyms. The use of pseudonyms is neither recommended nor forbidden. In the case of using pseudonyms, notaries must comply with all ethical standards related to their profession. Pseudonyms should never be used to enable unethical behavior on social media.
12. Using Private or Professional Identity. Notaries should have regard to the range of social media platforms and should recognize that, with some platforms, it may be beneficial to use separate private and professional identities. Notaries may wish to reflect on the appropriateness of using their official title or real name, which may be necessary or appropriate for some social media platforms, but not for others. Understanding social media platforms is an appropriate area for notary training.
13. Maintaining Private or Professional Accounts. Notaries may maintain their social media accounts as either exclusively private or exclusively professional.
Content and Behavior on Social Media
14. Professional and Ethical Behavior. Existing principles relating to the dignity of the office, notary impartiality, professionalism, and ethics apply equally to communications on social media.
15. Avoid Damaging Public Trust. Notaries should avoid expressing views or sharing personal information online that can potentially undermine dignity, integrity, propriety, impartiality, or public confidence in the office. The same principle applies to notaries regardless of whether or not they have chosen to disclose their real names or official status on social media platforms since the use of a pseudonym offers no guarantee that their real names or official status will not become known.
16. No Legal Advice. Social media facilitates private exchanges (such as direct messages), and notaries should not engage in private exchanges over social media sites or messaging services with parties, their representatives or the general public about legal matters, legal advice or legal opinions.
17. Careful, Considered and Prudent. Notaries should be circumspect in tone and language and be professional and prudent in respect of all interactions on all social media platforms. It may be helpful to consider in respect of each item of social media content (such as posts, comments, answers, rebuttals, photographs, images, audio recordings, videos, etc.) what its impact on notary dignity might be. The same caution applies when reacting to social media content added by others.
18. Respectful, Non-discriminating. Notaries should treat others with dignity and respect, not use social media to trivialize the concerns of others or make remarks that discriminate on any prohibited grounds.
19. Impartiality Compromised by Research. Social media makes it much easier to research parties online and discover things. Notaries should exercise caution about researching parties or other sources online and engaging in private research of their digital lives since this could potentially influence a notary’s impartial attitude on a matter (or lead to a perception that it has had such an influence).
20. Posting Biased Content. Notaries should consider whether any digital content might damage public confidence in their impartiality or in the impartiality of notaries in general. If such content presents those risks, notaries may consider removing it. It may be necessary to take advice on whether it would be correct to remove it and how to do so.
21. Responding to Verbal Attacks. If a notary has been attacked, insulted or abused online, he or she should seek legal advice or use other mechanisms in place but should refrain from responding directly.
22. Avoid Following or Liking Biased Topics Exclusively. A notary may use social media platforms to follow topics of interest. It may be worth following a diverse range of topics and commentators to avoid creating their own one-sided “echo chambers”. However, a notary should be wary of following or liking particular advocacy groups, campaigns, or commentators where an association with them could damage public confidence in the notary’s impartiality or the impartiality of notaries in general.
23. Avoid Personal Gain. Notaries should ensure that they do not use their social media accounts to advance their own or a third party’s financial or commercial interest, other than lawful marketing.
Friendships and Relationships Online
24. Maintain Formalities. Notaries should be aware that concepts like “friending”, “liking”, “following”, etc., in the social media context, can differ from conventional usage and may be less intimate or engaged. However, where the degree of interaction, online or otherwise, becomes more personally engaged or intimate, notaries should continue to observe circumspection, disclosure, disqualification, or other actions similar to those established for conventional offline relationships.
25. Review Accounts Periodically for Compliance. Notaries should periodically audit past and present social media accounts and should take steps to review content and relationships as and when necessary.
26. Avoid Bias or Prejudice. Notaries should develop an appropriate etiquette for removing and/or blocking followers/friends/etc., especially where failure to do so would reasonably create an appearance of bias or prejudice.
27. Exercise Due Care With Connections. It is prudent and wise for notaries to exercise due care and diligence when creating online friendships and connections and/or accepting online friend requests.
28. Seek Expert Advice. Whenever there is uncertainty as to either online relationships or content, notaries are encouraged to seek guidance from approved social media experts and/or notary ethics advisers.
29. Maintain Impartiality. During any pending notarial acts, and as a general rule, notaries should exercise caution in accepting or sending friend requests from or to parties or their legal representatives, and engaging in any other inappropriate interactions with them. The same applies to witnesses or any other known interested persons.
30. Friends and Family Compliance Cooperation. Notaries should be trained on how to inform their immediate families and close friends about their ethical obligations and how the use of social media can undermine compliance with those obligations.
Privacy and Security
32. Prepare for Privacy Breach. Regardless of privacy settings, it is advisable for notaries not to make any comment or engage in any conduct on social media that might be embarrassing or improper were it to become public knowledge.
33. Avoid Posting Personal Information. Notaries should be aware of the risks and propriety of sharing personal information. Be particularly aware of the privacy and security risks of revealing location, travel or any similar information directly or indirectly through posts.
34. Beware of Photos and Recordings. Irrespective of whether they use social media or not, notaries should be wary of how they behave in public because photos or recordings may be taken that can be spread quickly online.
Social Media Training
35. Prioritize Training. Notaries should prioritize and facilitate training on the use of social media to enable them to effectively manage the accounts they use.
36. Complete Training. Notaries should complete periodic training to address pertinent questions and issues, such as:
i. What social media platforms are available for use;
ii. How the platforms operate;
iii. What benefits there are to participating in these platforms;
iv. What the potential risks/consequences of such participation are;
v. How notaries should participate with appropriate reticence to protect their security and to fulfill their obligations to maintain impartiality, the dignity of the office, and public confidence;
vi. How family members should be adequately informed to play their part in ensuring that notaries are not subject to security risks and are successfully fulfilling their obligations; and
vii. How to exercise caution about researching parties and discovering information that may influence notary impartiality.
37. Continuing Education. Training should be completed with some level of permanency and on a continuous basis and, if possible, should also be available electronically.
38. User Support. There should be ongoing confidential resources for inquiry and advice as needed. The trainer should consider publishing a compilation of such advice and direction.
Notaries can use these guidelines “as is” or to create their own social media policies to comply with state and federal laws, rules and ethics codes.