Establishing PR Procedures
Imagine turning on your local news and seeing the maintenance man from one of your facilities giving an interview on a recent break-in at the property. “I’ve been telling the management this fence needed repaired,” the maintenance man says. Your property has just been put in the hot seat. Now you must defend your property and maintenance decisions to your tenants and the public. They’ll want to know why the fence was in disrepair and if it was the reason for the break-in. Moreover, you now have a potential legal liability problem.
Don’t think this can happen? It can, and did, says Anne Ballard, president of marketing and training development for Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga. The scenario happened at another company’s property.
“It’s always very important to have a media policy,” says Ballard. “One person should be the designated spokesperson for the facility.”
However, you shouldn’t wait until there’s an emergency at your facility to make your first contact with the media. If you’re marketing or participating in community events and organizations, you have plenty of opportunity to build relationships.
Creating A Media Policy
Before anything happens, either for positive or negative publicity, you should hire a communications specialist to help you put together a plan and implement it when necessary, says Gregg Voss, senior communications strategist for TSN Communications in Oak Hill, Va. “Having a communications partner, in my opinion, is just as important as having an accountant or an attorney,” Voss says.
While this might seem expensive, you don’t need to hire a full-time communications specialist or PR firm to help you with periodic media interactions. “It could be a smaller agency or a freelance communication specialist,” says Voss. “The important thing is to have someone you can contact if you need them.”
If you cannot hire a communications specialist, Voss recommends you take some basic media training courses in dealing with the media before contacting reporters and editors. You can also refer to the “Emergency Preparedness” manual written by the Self Storage Association.
The first general rule: Designate a media spokesperson for the company, either the owner or an executive.
The next most important thing your media policy should include is what to say to the media in the event of a burglary or other criminal incident on the property, fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, or other natural disaster.
Voss, who was on the tenant end of a situation once when his storage unit flooded, appreciated the fact that management had an open line of communication with tenants affected first. Communications with tenants should always be your priority.
However, you don’t want to delay your reaction to the media. If there’s a disaster and there is no time to consult with your communications specialist or anyone else, Voss gives this advice: “Tell it first, tell it fast, and tell it your way.”
That does not, however, include accepting responsibility. “What you never want to say is ‘it’s our fault; we take responsibility,” says Ballard.
As a matter of fact, if you don’t have time before the media arrives to do anything, Charlie Fritts, president of Storage Investment Management, Inc., in Buffalo, N.Y., advises to say as little as possible.
“It’s best to acknowledge it happened and say that it’s still under investigation,” says Fritts. “If the designated spokesperson needs to speak with the company or attorney or you want to have a written statement, tell the media you will have a statement by a designated time.”
The important thing is to control the message as much as possible. “You control the media; don’t let the media control you,” Fritts says. “If you’re not ready to make a statement, tell them when you will be. It’s important that you control the information they get from you.”
Fritts points out that you do not have to allow the media on your property for any photos. “It’s important to remember that it’s private property,” he says. “You can tell them they have to take photos outside of the gate.”
What you should keep in mind is liability management. “Express sympathy and empathy,” Ballard says. “You can say, ‘We’re are upset, as our customers are. We are doing everything to cooperate with local authorities.’ You want to express that you’re in charge of the situation and are cooperating with the police or whatever authorities.”
If it is a natural disaster or a fire and authorities aren’t allowing access to the property or certain portions of it, Ballard suggests saying, “We will assess the situation as soon as authorities allow us back in.”
Once you’ve prepared your statement, if possible, it’s a good idea to run it by your communications specialist, if you have one, advises Voss. And, if it is a potential liability issue, run it by your attorney.
Once you’re in front of the media, the key is to control the interview. If you’re asked something you don’t want to answer, Voss recommends making bridge statements. “You want to continue to bridge to your key message. Your key message will depend on what’s happened. Briefly touch on the question you don’t want to answer and bridge to the key message.”
For example, if you don’t want to answer a question, Voss suggests this bridge statement: “Before we continue …” and then go on to your key message, which might be, “I can assure you, we are working with metro PD,” or “We know the situation occurred; we’re working on investigating the matter.”
The most important thing to do is remain unemotional. “Stick to your message,” Fritts says.
What you don’t want to do, warns Fritts, is lie or give the media any unintentional false information. “You don’t want to say there are no problems with break-ins or whatever the case may be if there are,” says Fritts.
The other thing you don’t want to do is say, “no comment.” Voss states that telling the media “no comment” implies there is something for them to dig for, and you might not like what they find. “Another thing not to do is to ‘go off record’ with them,” says Voss. “That is a big mistake. Every time you open your mouth and the reporter writes it down, assume it will go into their story or onto social media.”
Of course, if you’ve built relationships with your local media before a crisis statement is necessary, it may make an eventual crisis go a little smoother.
Even if your facility never has a crisis, you’re going to want positive media coverage when you’re holding charitable events, helping a family recover from a crisis, or receiving a prestigious award.
Jared Meade, present of Rayne Strategy Group in Toledo, Ohio, says the best way you can start building a relationship is to ensure local reporters know you as a subject matter expert. He suggests using your blog to write articles about topics pertaining to moving and storage and contacting local editors about submitting such articles to their publications, especially at key times such as the spring and summer moving season.
Building relationships with local media is important, but you don’t want to bombard them with ideas and press releases. “Be strategic about communications,” says Voss. “It’s great you won an award, but think about what it means to the community and slant your release or idea.”
If you are holding an event, prepare a press release, which should be sent at least two weeks prior to the event, and contain the name, phone number, and email contact for your designated spokesperson. “It’s always a good idea to tell the editor or reporter if photos are available as well,” Voss notes.
However, a press release isn’t necessary, says Fritts, who takes a more casual approach and simply calls the media outlet.
Once the media has been contacted, it’s a good idea to find out who will come to the event and ensure someone is available to interview with them. “Roll out the red carpet for them,” says Voss. “You might even want to give them a goodie bag.”
The bottom line is no matter if the news on your facility is good or not, the important thing is to remember to always control the message.
Scott Zucker, partner with Weissman Zucker Euster Morochnik in Atlanta, says it isn’t necessary to contact your attorney in every crisis. “If it is an act of God, it probably isn’t necessary,” says Zucker. “However, if it involves a potential liability such as a crime or injury, you should reach out to counsel.”
He also adds if there is a negative story about your facility, you can issue a response, but it’s probably a good idea to have your attorney review it for factual statements. “You don’t want to say there’s no problem if there is,” says Zucker.
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to MiniCo’s publications. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur, Aol.com, MSN.com, and The Kansas City Star.