Most community associations have emergency preparedness plans in case of fires, floods, or hurricanes. But there’s one form of disaster that very few have an organized response for: the public relations disaster.
“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 & Lessones Learnt.” “Most organizations thought, ‘Well, that could never happen to us.’ ”
Having procedures in place to handlebad news should be right up there with installing smoke detectors and emergency exits, media consultants like McCusker say, because speed and accuracy are two main tools to help defuse bad PR – whether it comes in the form of a bedbug infestation, a lawsuit, or a headline-grabbing crime in the condo. In the age of Twitter, there’s no time to dither. You don’t want to still be deciding who the condo spokesperson is as reporters are showing up in the parking lot.
“When I was researching my book, all the experts agreed that the first 24 hours [of a crisis] were critical in how you responded,” McCusker says. People no longer have such a luxuriousamount of time to craft a response. “With social media, it’s the first two to four hours.”
“The No.1 rule is to get some kind of information out that’s factual and correct as fast as possible,” agrees Abbi Whitaker, founder and president of Abbi PR in Reno, Nevada. “The longeryou wait, the more speculation is going to grow.”
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, McCusker says. It’s not automatically going to be the condo board president. You want somebody who has gravitas, emotional intelligence, and can handle 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 runningabout like a scalded cat.”
You also don’t want to be flipping through the “P” section of the Yellow Pages after a fire or a murder on site.
PR Person on Retainer
“Why not get in touch with a PR official before disaster strikes?” asks Peter Golden, president of the Golden Group in Boston, who has worked with media and public relations since 1968. Golden points out that most property managers aren’t exactly equipped to handle a large gaggle of reporters. “Most managers are not trained in public relations. They knowabout snow removal and capital plans and monthly collections, but they’ve never written a word in their life.”
In Massachusetts, Golden recommends looking at the Boston Chapter of PRSA (Public Relations Society of America, which has state chapters throughout New England). An independent practitioner would probably be the best bet for an association to have on retainer. “The association doesn’t need to bear the expense of a firm, unless something extraordinary happens,” he says.
Golden believes that part of surviving a PR disaster involves building a good reputation for a condo development long before disaster looms. He says this seems to go against the instincts of some associations, who, unless the headline reads “Voted No. 1 Place to Live,” would prefer not to see their name in the newspaper. But it’s important to build relationships with both local reporters and the public. “That way people have a way to understand that Willow Acres is a lovely place to live, and if something bad has happened, it will be handled,” says Golden.
No matter how lovely your development, though, there are certain situations in which an appointed spokesperson isn’t going to be good enough, and you need to call in the experts, in the form of a crisis communication firm.
“If you have a fire, and 10 of your units burned and a family died, do not try to handle it yourself,” says Whitaker. That goes double for any disaster involving children.
Stalling Will Backfire
If a tragedy has occurred, don’t get caught trying to spin, stonewall, or stall. 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.
With condos, “you’re talking about people’s houses. These issues can be very emotional – roaches in the kitchen, bugs in the bed, mold in the walls. This is all very visual,” says McCusker, 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?’”
Both McCusker and Whitaker say 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 Whitaker, who has workedwith real estate, travel, and hospitality PR for the past 12 years.
“You always need to tell the truth, because the truth is going to come out,” says Whitaker, who recommends updating the media every six to eight hours and providing bullet-pointed press releases to make sure your messageis clear. (How can you tell if the crisis is passing? Reporters and residents stop calling every day.) “Stick to the facts, don’t try to embellish, don’t try to sugarcoat. Reporters will smell through that right away.”
Reporters on the Property
While it may be tempting to pull up the drawbridge and slam the gates shut, McCusker and Whitaker do not recommend barring reporters from a development – unless the police say it is necessary for an investigation. For one thing, it makes it look like you have something to hide. For another, reporters don’t need physical access to get information or even visuals anymore.
That does not, however, mean givingreporters a license to roam freely and knock on residents’ doors.
Whitaker recommends 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.)
McCusker, however, points out that a seasoned reporter isn’t going to be content to be spoon-fed. “With Twitter, how hard is it to tweet, ‘Problem with bedbugs? What’s your story? Reporter needs your help.’ ”
Hunkering down and saying nothing is not really a practical option in today’s environment. If the association doesn’t talk, a disgruntled unit owner probablywill.
When Violent Crime is Involved
However, if violent crime is the issue, let the police handle all questions, Whitaker says. In cases where lawsuits are a possibility, talk to your lawyers before talking to the press.
One of the most important things an association can convey – both to the media and to its residents –is what it is doing to fix the situation, whether that means hiring extra guards in the case of a rash of thefts, for example, or establishing a neighborhood watch and improving lighting and security cameras.
“When you say nothing in an immediate crisis, that looks bad,” says Whitaker. “If you do nothing in an ongoing crisis, it looks bad.”
While in the past, organizations might try to minimize the true extent of a problem, all it takes is one video on YouTube, and the association “looksduplicitous,” says McCusker. “That was the old school of thought that said, ‘We can control the media.’ It’s a flawed premise.”
McCusker believes that sincerity (without naivete) will get an organization through a PR crisis faster. The truth, he believes, can be disarming, and these days, media-savvy viewers know when they’re being handled. He points to such events as Tiger Woods’ press conference to show the limits of such forms of highly-scripted PR.
The 3 Rs
Instead of spin, he recommends the “three Rs: responsibility, regret, and remedial action. These are the things that will see you through. 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.
Whitaker agrees that genuineness and not trying to dodge responsibility are the way to go. “Never, ever push the blame on someone else. Don’t say, ‘It’s my fault,’ but don’t point fingers,” says Whitaker. If someone has been hurt, “never, ever, ever blame the victim.”
Another phrase to strike from your vocabulary? “I don’t think the words ‘no comment’ should ever be used,” she says. If you don’t know, say so, and offer to find out the answer and get back to a reporter – or put them in touch with an expert who can help. “‘No comment’ sounds like, ‘I’m guilty.’”
Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.