Magazine article Journal of Property Management

When the Talking Gets Tough

Magazine article Journal of Property Management

When the Talking Gets Tough

Article excerpt

Communicating during a Crisis

Imagine this: It's a beautiful fall Friday afternoon, and you think, just maybe, you could leave work an hour early. But a phone call from your on-site property manager changes those plans in a hurry. The furnace at the property just exploded, igniting a fire that has six people trapped on the second floor.

You rush to the property. By the time you arrive, the fire is under control, and the six people have been rescued and sent to a local hospital. With the fire out and none of the injuries serious, the crisis now appears to have passed, right? Not yet. You have tenants who want answers, a local investigative reporter who wants an interview, and a city building inspector who wants to revisit the property, along with the six other properties you oversee.

How you meet these three challenges can have just as large an impact on your property's future as the initial fire. Communicate well, and you could actually improve your standing among the building's investors, your tenants, and others who play a key role in your success. Handle things poorly, and you could spend the next several days, months--maybe even years--fending off criticism and missing business opportunities.

Property owners and managers across the country regularly spend millions of dollars on equipment, services, personnel training, and early-warning systems geared toward helping them avoid disaster. No matter how many preventive measures you take, though, sooner or later you're bound to be hit by some type of crisis. Bad things happen to even the most safety-conscious owner or manager. That's why a crisis communication plan should be a part of every manager's "tool box." The key elements of this plan: Prepare for the worst, swing into action immediately, and thoroughly communicate to all key audiences.

Spotting a Crisis Early

While many daily hassles may feel like a crisis, most really don't fit the definition. Crises, pure and simple, are major occurrences that may seriously harm tenants, employees, or investors or prevent tenants, owners, or property managers from doing business today or in the future.

Serious employee misconduct, a hostage situation, a physical assault, a natural disaster, and other extreme circumstances meet the criteria. Events that don't usually qualify for full-blown crisis response include temporary power failures, ruptured water pipes, or elevator shutdowns.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Minor aggravations that go unresolved can often snowball into something much larger. Case in point: Last summer, a Midwest-based management firm failed to send in the electricity bill for a large multifamily property. The local utility turned off power to the property's common areas, leaving residents without hallway lighting, parking lot lights, laundry room facilities, or fire alarms.

For three days, the on-site manager ignored the problem and refused to address complaints. Irritated residents called a local TV news reporter who came out to investigate. The belligerent on-site manager--while face-to-face with the TV camera--refused to answer the reporter's questions and ordered him off the property. That evening, the "deadbeat" manager and the property became the lead story on the top-rated station's newscast.

If the manager had communicated with her residents, regularly updating them and asking for their patience, the whole incident might have been avoided. Even if the TV news crew came out to the property, a tempered approach by the manager might have kept the story from being so scalding.

Explaining the Situation

In the absence of fact, perception becomes reality. That is, most people will assume the worst until shown otherwise. The electricity shut-off was just due to a paperwork mix-up, but because the manager never bothered to share that fact, she was perceived as incompetent and insensitive at best--malicious at worst. …

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