Most buildings have emergency preparedness plans in case of fires, floods, or hurricanes. But there’s one form of crisis that very few have an organized response for: the public relations disaster. It could come in the form of a scandal, criminal indictment, or even (especially these days) a nasty bedbug infestation. Managers and board members not only have to handle the crisis itself, whatever it may be, but they must also address the aftermath and communicate with residents and sometimes the press about the situation. And that's something that takes poise and forethought to handle correctly and with minimal drama.
“It’s the lack of preparedness that’s really the undoing of most organizations in these cases,” says Gerry McCusker, a Melbourne, Australia-based reputation management consultant and author of the book Public Relations Disasters: Talespin—Inside Stories & Lessons Learnt. “Most organizations think, ‘Well, that could never happen to us.’ ”
Media consultants like McCusker say that having procedures in place to handle bad news should be right up there with installing smoke detectors and emergency signage, because in the age of Twitter and other social networking tools, speed and accuracy are two main tools to help defuse bad PR. You don’t want to still be deciding who the condo spokesperson is as reporters are showing up in the parking lot.
"I think there's a general outline or framework,” says Donald Miller of Rockville Centre, Long Island-based PR firm Harrison Leifer DiMarco, Inc., "and it involves a couple of things. One of them is planning ahead and defining roles and responsibilities. Management companies and organizations sometimes fail to realize the value of having a crisis plan in place before these things happen. Planning ahead is essential. Obviously, life and personal safety is paramount. I think that's one thing that building managers should realize and that always put the public's best interest ahead of the organization's."
A single spokesperson is the best answer and it’s important not to have conflicting information especially when the media is involved, says Michael Berenson, president of Manhattan-based AKAM Associates. “It's very important when dealing with a disaster that there's one voice,” says Berenson. “It's important that if there are seven board members and the superintendent in the building that has knowledge, or intimate knowledge of an incident or issue, that all seven people do not discuss it with the press. That one communication comes out in writing from the management of the company.
“If there is verbal communication to the press, I find that it can be turned very quickly on you. So if it's an issue, we'll release a press statement on behalf of our client. It will be reviewed by our client, it will be reviewed by a general counsel for our client,” he says, adding that the statement would then be distributed accordingly.
To hit the ground running, it’s important for a board to draw up a plan and have it on file. Figure out who the crisis response team will be, and who will be responsible for which roles. For example, the property manager might be the point of contact for residents, while someone else might be appointed to handle press releases. It’s also important that residents are on board with referring the media to a specific spokesperson, rather than having 100 unit owners all talking to the press.
Choosing the right spokesperson can take some time, says McCusker. It’s not automatically going to be the condo board president. Your designated spokesperson should possess gravitas and emotional intelligence, and be capable of handling a barrage of questions without coming unglued. McCusker suggests getting your appointed spokesperson some media training, so that the first time they’re bombarded by angry questions isn’t when the reputation—and property values—of the condominium is on the line.
“You need to do this stuff beforehand—you can’t find this person within a half-hour of an issue breaking out,” says McCusker. “You need to have the process in place, rather than be running about like a scalded cat.”
It also doesn't pay to dissemble in the face of an emergency or sensitive situation, should the press get word of it and demand more information. "You really have to be upfront and honest and not try to attempt to minimize the severity of any situation," says Miller, "but on the flip side, you don't want to blow a minor incident out of proportion. You've got to get out and be cooperative with the press, and it's important to make sure you have all the facts and provide them with as much information as possible and as fast as possible. In this age of instant news and blogs and so forth, destructive rumors can start very quickly. Facts stop rumors. And that's why we emphasize to our clients the importance of getting the facts out early."
Steve Greenbaum of property management firm MGRE in Lake Success spoke of what could have been a potential disaster in one of his buildings that turned into a terrific news story. In January 2008, a fire broke out in one of the apartment buildings MGRE manages and the superintendent went door-to-door rescuing people and getting their animals to safety. The super was a real hero, he said, and turned what was a disaster into a heart-warming success.
PR Person on Retainer
No matter what the situation, “On-site staff should be given information as they need it, and should be directed not to speculate,” says Peter von Simson, CEO of New Bedford Management Corp. in Manhattan. “Questions outside the scope of the information provided to the staff should be directed to the appropriate knowledgeable and designated individual. This person may or may not be from the management company.”
While property managers in a cosmopolitan city like New York are capable people who are well accustomed to wearing many hats and handling a multitude of situations, most are not trained public relations professionals. Each building is different, says Greenbaum. But in some cases, both the property manager and client building should consider engaging the services of a PR pro to help mitigate sticky situations.
"The more forward-thinking management companies often retain the services of a PR firm, either it's on a retainer or an as-needed basis," says Miller. "A good reputation that's built over time can be destroyed in an instant and take a long time to rebuild. But if you have a good reputation with your shareholders or tenants, that really helps recover more quickly from a crisis situation."
Stalling Will Backfire
If a tragedy has occurred, such as a deadly fire or a homicide, don’t get caught trying to spin, stonewall, or stall, say the professionals. Those tactics will only backfire in today’s transparent media environment, where every resident is armed with a camera phone and every Facebook page can operate as a front page. “It’s like having a journalist in every unit,” says McCusker. “You’re talking about people’s homes. These issues can be very emotional—roaches in the kitchen, bugs in the bed, mold in the walls. It's all very visual," and there’s a danger that, if angry residents are posting pictures online, more than the local media might take an interest. “Soon you can have the London Times talking about, ‘Is This America’s Filthiest Condominium?’ ”
McCusker advises that in addition to a media spokesperson, associations should appoint one person to monitor social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and the condominium’s own message boards. “It’s not like 1985, where the only story people are going to get is in the newspaper,” says Abbi Whitaker, founder and president of Abbi PR in Reno, Nevada. “You always need to tell the truth, because the truth is going to come out. Stick to the facts, don’t try to embellish, don’t try to sugarcoat. People will smell through that right away.”
Instead of spin, McCusker recommends the “Three Rs: Responsibility, Regret, and Remedial action. Acknowledge that something has happened. ‘We’re taking it seriously; we’ve got our best people on it.’ There’s a great role for emotional intelligence here—show your concern for the people who may be impacted,” says McCusker. The pros agree: “Never, ever push the blame on someone else. Don’t say, ‘It’s my fault,’ but don't point fingers." If someone has been hurt, “Never, ever, ever blame the victim.”
They also suggest to refrain from saying “no comment” as that just makes it seem like there is some guilt involved or something to hide. Greenbaum, however, says taking the line of “no comment” might be better in some cases where the media is looking for a negative angle or there are unresolved issues that management cannot address at the present time.
Reporters on the Property
Some management pros take a hard line against letting reporters or other members of the press into their buildings. “The press should not be allowed on the property and should not be allowed to interfere with residents’ access to the property,” says von Simson. “If the press trespasses on the premises, they should be asked politely to leave the premises. If the situation persists, management should call the police. A building should cooperate with authorities responding to an emergency situation, but does not have any obligation to volunteer any information to the press, and certainly not without the advice of legal counsel."
Others are less apt to pull up the drawbridges unless the police say it is necessary for an investigation. Some pros feel that it makes it look like you have something to hide. Others point out that reporters don’t need physical access to get information or even visuals anymore. That does not, however, mean giving reporters a license to roam freely and knock on residents’ doors.
"It depends on the type of crisis," says Miller. "Generally, in my role I act as the media conduit and have all the press inquiries funneled through me—because the building or property managers are busy trying to rectify the situation,” he says.
"We don't allow press in our buildings but they do stand outside from time to time when there is an issue," says Doug Weinstein, AKAM’s director of operations. "A great example would be just the other night when the big pipe burst on First Avenue at 1 a.m. and guess what? That was our building with debris all over the front and five feet of water in the basement. And News 1 (NY1) was standing there this morning at 5 a.m., trying to get into the lobby. They talked to all the people in there—a super and everybody else. We restrict access and make one statement to New York 1 as to what happened and what the ramifications were to our building, which was no boiler, no heat, no hot water, no regular water, no telephone service. The building was knocked out. So we're very cognizant of that type of problem."
The experts also recommend establishing a central area for press and staying with them at all times. If, for example, the development has a problem with that automatic headline-generator, bedbugs, take the press to a room that’s been cleaned and show them what steps the condo is taking to eliminate the problem. (Cute, bedbug-sniffing beagles couldn’t hurt as a visual.)
The exception to all of this however, is violent crime. In such situations, the pros are in agreement: let the police handle any all questions. And in cases where lawsuits are a possibility, talk to your lawyers before talking to the press.
The most important factor for management, says Berenson, is to maintain residents’ quality of life throughout and make sure they aren’t negatively impacted by whatever situation is occurring at the property.
Not every building has to face an emergency that calls for PR management but should such a situation befall your building, having a plan in place and trusted professionals to call upon can make the difference between a challenge and an outright crisis.
Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine. David Chiu, editorial assistant of The Cooperator, contributed to the article.