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, media 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.
"Management companies and organizations sometimes fail to realize the value of having a crisis plan in place before these things happen," says Donald Miller of Rockville Centre, N.Y.-based PR firm Harrison Leifer DiMarco, Inc. "Planning ahead is essential. Obviously, life and personal safety is paramount. I think that's one thing that building managers should realize and that's always put the public's best interest ahead of the organization's."
The refrain heard most frequently from PR pros is the importance of getting correct information out about a situation as quickly as possible. The longer HOA administrators wait, the more speculation will grow—often to the detriment of an already-tense situation.
"Obviously, some of the issues are dependent on the type of emergency,” adds Michael Pesce, president of Community Management Corporation in Clifton. “But I think the general rule is communicate immediately and be as truthful as you can possibly be. Some [administrators] decide to do every bit of due diligence before telling anybody anything, and I think that's a mistake. That doesn't mean you should go off half-cocked on an issue and communicate before you really understand what happened, but I do think that you need to start to communicate even if you don't have all of the answers."
To hit the ground running, it’s important for a board to draw up an emergency communication 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.
"If the building or HOA is a smaller community, they may not be able to afford a press release," says Michael Cervelli, president of Cervelli Management in North Bergen, "but by all means there should be someone appointed as spokesman for everything, Otherwise, you'll have misinformation, and that's always a problem. There should be an appointed person, and that person should be informed and aware of what they're going to do, what their role is, what they can say and what they can't say. You should also always consult with your association attorney to make sure that any information you're about to release is okay. You have to be cognizant that you may have a lawsuit or some libaility coming down the road, and there may be some things that you can't talk about."
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. Being honest—not minimizing the severity of a situation while at the same time not blowing it out of proportion—is key when dealing with information in a crisis, says Gary Wilkin, president of Wilkin Management Group in Mahwah. "Communities and management should communicate what they know to their membership as soon as possible, and continue to do so as they gather information and facts. Because people get concerned about why something happened. Rumors start and spread very quickly if people don't communicate, or [if] they communicate incorrectly. So, it is very, very important to get that process out there as quickly as possible."
PR Person on Retainer
No matter what the situation, most pros agree that on-site staff should be given information as they need it, and should be directed not to speculate. Questions outside the scope of the information provided to staff members should be directed to the appropriate knowledgeable and designated individual - and that person may or may not be from the management company.
"The first rule is identify who the spokesperson is," says Pesce, "and number two, identify what the message is. I don't think the spokesperson universally needs to be the board president, the manager or the association's lawyer. It depends to some extent on the nature of the problem and the skills of the people in those positions.” “I believe that being truthful with association members is essential, informing them of the situation quickly before rumors get out of control, sending a memo telling them what happened with just brief/vague details. The most important objective is obviously protecting the involved individual(s) privacy and making that known in your communications, that will help keep the situation from becoming overblown,” notes Thomas Chilenski, the president of Cedarcrest Property Management in Fairfield.
Some management companies - particularly those handling very large properties or portfolios - retain the services of a PR firm, either on a retainer or an as-needed basis. One of the things a PR company can help an HOA board and management company with is community relations—building a good image and a good reputation with their constituents. A good reputation that's built over time can be destroyed in an instant and take a long time to rebuild. Of course, no amount of public relations can substitute for plain old-fashioned good management and administration, but it doesn't hurt - and a good reputation with shareholders and residents can often help an association recover more quickly from a crisis situation.
Stalling Will Backfire
If a tragedy has occurred, such as a deadly fire or homicide, don’t get caught trying to spin, stonewall, or stall, say the pros. 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.
Public relations pros 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. This is no longer 1985—people are not merely relying on the morning paper or the 6 o'clock news for their information. They are also much shrewder and skeptical about what they read and hear, and less likely to be satisfied by empty platitudes and PR-speak.
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,” he says.
Other professionals agree, and add that one of the worst things to do in a crisis is to push the blame onto someone else or—heaven forbid—blame the victim. They also advise striking the phrase "No comment" from the vocabularies of managers, board members, and association staff. If you don’t know, say so—and refer them to the designated media contact for the community.
Reporters on the Property
Some management pros take a hard line against letting reporters or other members of the press into their buildings, while others are less apt to pull up the drawbridges. Some feel that unless the police say it is necessary for an investigation, stonewalling or giving the press the runaround can give the impression that 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 really depends on the sensitivity of the subject matter," says Wilkin. "But the first thing that should be done is that the board, management and the association's counsel should all agree on how information is going to be handled with the membership and/or the public. There should be one contact person—not multiple sources for the story. You don't want 13 people being interviewed. If the press is floating around, the story needs to be correct, and it needs to be channeled through one source, whether that's the board president or the management company. And if it is the management company, it probably should be the owner of the management company."
In addition to naming a single contact for press and resident inquiries, it's also recommended that HOAs set up a central area for press during a crisis and dispatch an association representative to remain with them at all times. For example, if 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 either.)
The exception to all of this however, is violent crime and other outright criminal conduct. In such situations, the pros are in agreement: let the police handle any and all questions. And in cases where lawsuits are a possibility, talk to your lawyers before talking to the press. "It's important to have the information come from the governmental source investigating it," says Pesce. "I want to hear the statement from the police, and I want the police to communicate what's going on rather than me. My approach has always been to relate the official position and nothing beyond that. That doesn't satisfy everybody; you get people asking, 'What does that really mean? Can't you tell us who it was? Which home was affected?' And you have to be pretty tough to say 'No, that's all we can say because that's what the enforcement authorities have told us."
More Than Spin
Of course, just managing information during or in the aftermath of a crisis situation is only half the story—the problem itself needs to be fixed, and prevented from happening again if humanly possible. "You can't just communicate the problem and walk away saying you've done your job," says Wilkin. As a board/management team, there has to be follow-up with residents to assure them that their administrators are committed to keeping them safe and preserving the value of their homes.
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, a Yale Robbins' publication. David Chiu, the editorial assistant of the New Jersey Cooperator, contributed to this article.