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How to handle the media: dealing with a hungry media in the fade of an emergency does not have to put an apartment community and its staff on the defensive. Learn some tips for getting the message out and avoiding bad press.

The disaster occurred late at night, leaving managers scurrying about looking for answers so they could calm residents and feed news-hungry reporters. Sometimes, those answers were elusive, leaving the media to speculate about what might have caused, an apartment building to explode. Not a smart idea.

The Arizona-based company dealing with the emergency also lacked a Spanish-speaking employee--a problem considering a number of displaced residents were Hispanic.

The initial result was predictable.

"We got bad press," said Melanie Morrison, a Senior Executive for Morrison, Ekre and Bart Management Services (MEB) in Arizona.

Eventually, they turned that into good press, earning praise for their relief efforts after this explosion destroyed 16 of 288 units in one building and damaged units from buildings on either side of the explosion.

MEB learned from that experience about the need to be prepared. It also learned it needed better ways to handle the media.

MEB certainly wasn't alone. An Assistant Vice President at a large REIT learned her lesson eight years ago. After a fire at one apartment building, management lacked the basic answers. So when reporters asked questions, they merely responded with a "no comment." They didn't want to put forth misleading information. But they didn't realize the image it projected.

"When von see the newscast. it just didn't look good." she said. "We're very compassionate people, but we didn't give you any indication that we were. When you give a 'no comment,' it makes it seem like we're trying to hide something."

Learning to Be Prepared

The stories go on and on. And on. Many apartment managers struggle when staring at a horde of reporters, or even just one camera or notepad. It is intimidating. It is frightening. Alas, it's also part of the job--even if it occurs only once or twice a year.

All it takes is one or two had appearances to create a negative impression, which is why several hundred apartment industry professionals attended "How to Survive in a Media Crazy World" at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va., as part of NAA's Capitol Conference this past March. They hoped to leave better equipped to handle the media, particularly in situations that could paint a negative picture--such as evicting a family on Christmas Eve. After listening for three hours to Nan Tolbert and Jeff Strei, Executive Communication Coaches from The Communication Center/Susan Peterson Productions, Washington, D.C., many achieved that goal.

"This was the meat and potatoes of what we need," Pat Stanforth, Vice President for the Multifamily Division of Griffis/Blessing Inc., said. "Overall it was an A-plus."

They learned how to be better prepared. They learned tricks that would help them deal with reporters, keeping them--not the reporter--in control of a situation. Pause before answering; take a few minutes to call them back; never go off-the-record. It was all part of their program.

The boiled-down premise: It's not easy, but doesn't have to be hard. They presented a detailed plan; they videotaped fake interviews with some of the attendees and dissected everything from content to body language. They showed real interviews with apartment managers, again poring over the details to analyze their performances. They showed how a company's message can get lost amid other factors. But they also showed how to make sure that doesn't happen.

More than Words

Tolbert and Strei made sure attendees knew it wasn't only their words being judged.

"It's not always what you say," Tolbert told them at the beginning, "but how you say it."

Consider the message received.

"I'd like to bring my people here," said Jodi Bart, a Senior Executive with MEB. "Even though we have one designated spokesperson, there's such a fear of the media. If you're prepared, you won't be so fearful. Even on camera you just have to relax. The media know less [about the topic] than you do."

Tolbert and Strei know that last statement all too well. Both worked in the media, either in public relations or as journalists, for a combined 30 years. Strei worked as a reporter, writer and producer for FOX Television as well as an NBC affiliate. Tolbert was a reporter for a CBS affiliate in the South.

So they understand the techniques used by the media, and they understand how to combat them. If, for instance, a reporter calls looking for an immediate interview, claiming they are on deadline and don't have time to wait, don't believe them. More often than not, they can wait a few minutes, giving one a chance to prepare, however briefly, for the interview. Also, don't stray from the message--and don't get suckered into answering a leading question.

It's about control.

"It's a 50-50 situation," Tolbert said. "You have 100 percent control of your 50, but people often give that away."

"They have the questions, but you have the answers," Strei said. "The answers are everything."

The pair didn't stop with words. Part of the seminar was devoted to body language. As much as anything, that will shape someone's first impression, they said. How is the person being interviewed standing; are their arms folded, their hands gesturing wildly? What is their voice tone? Though words are important, Tolbert said they can be obscured with poor voice tone and body language. She pointed to a study that showed 55 percent of respondents listed body language as what they look at most, followed by 38 percent for tone and 7 percent for word choice.

"Words are the most important," Tolbert said, "but without the other 93 percent, you would not stay engaged. You have to find the balance. It's for people to decide if they trust you, if they like you and if you care. You want to make people stay connected to what you're saying."

To prove their point, they showed a tape from a real interview by a Dallas TV station. Cheryl Pucci, a representative from the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, was discussing a hot topic: the need for apartment residents to have driver's licenses. After the interview, what people remembered was this: She came across as friendly and caring because she smiled throughout the interview.

And that could make the difference when the public judges the story.

"Viewers won't remember what you said," Strei told the audience, "but they will remember how you make them feel."

Then there are the delivery skills, which leads to a funny listing. Strei said the "Book of Lists" places public speaking as the No. 1 fear of people; death is No. 7. One way to ease a speaker's tension is to "unlock your body," Strei said. That means focusing on hand placement and gestures. Strei said that where your hands start is where they often stay. So don't perform wild gestures, but do gesture as you would when speaking to a friend.

But don't harp on gestures.

"If you're thinking about gesturing [during the interview], that's what you're thinking about instead of the message," Strei said.

Another no-no: don't repeat the buzzwords. If, for example Tolbert said, a reporter asks, "Isn't it true you're all scumbags?" don't respond by saying, "No, we're not scumbags." Instead, she said, refocus by turning the response into a positive--with a phrase such as, "The key issue here is ..." and redirect the subject with this sort of phrase, "On the contrary."

"It's softer than 'No,' "Tolbert said. "And it's like, 'Man, I can't believe you asked me that.' Don't give weight to their question by repeating the negative assumption."

The Rolodex System

The key, they said, is being prepared for the interview before it occurs. Map out a plan to deal with all sorts of situations, a strategy Tolbert called the Rolodex System.

They suggest jotting down three or four key points, or core message, for every major issue. That includes writing down the key message, using a fact and statistic to back it up and adding an example or an anecdote. But don't limit it to one major point per issue; rather, they recommend having at least three talking points, all backed up by facts, statistics and examples. Why? Because one key point might only take up a minute or so of an interview--and there may be 10 to 15 more minutes left.

"That's where it gets tough," Strei said. "But if you have three key messages, then you have three different ways to speak to each one. And you get a choice. You can answer with a message or a number. You can bounce among them in the interview. The nice thing about this is it makes you more interesting. I like using examples and anecdotes. There's a uniqueness to them."

Bart called the Rolodex idea "great." Others agreed. Stanforth said she didn't know anyone who used this strategy before the seminar. She left thinking a majority would use it now.

"You've got to be able to think on your feet quickly," Stanforth said. "There are certain issues that always pop up, like when you have a fire or a flood or some kind of holiday problem.... It's just a background of what you've got to do. Then you're more prepared and look more professional. I enjoy public speaking, but it still rattles you a little bit when you're not quite ready for the questions."

Plan, too, for the tough questions; clearly, those are what reporters will try to ask. And that Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared," stood out with the aforementioned REIT executive, who chose to remain anonymous.

"Don't wait until you get yourself in that situation," she said, "so you're not reactive because then you'll mess up."

And this also ties into another facet of Tolbert and Strei's talk: If a reporter calls, don't always take the call right away, even if they claim they are on deadline. Chances are, they told the crowd, they can wait a few minutes. That way, you can use those few minutes to review your rolodex.

If an assistant answers the phone, have them ask the reporter what topic he wants to discuss. But don't ask what questions she'll ask; a reporter doesn't always know. Instead, ask what the angle of the story is, or who else they've talked to, a tip-off to the possible slant.

And, if for some reason, they don't call back in five or 10 minutes and you miss an opportunity to be quoted, don't worry. It's better than rushing into an interview and making a mistake, Strei said.

"I loved that idea," Stanforth said. "I have this happen all the time, 'I've got a deadline and I've got to talk to you right now.' Even if you just put them on hold for a minute to collect your thoughts, [it helps]."

The better prepared one is, the better the interview will go, even in difficult circumstances. Mike Beirne, Executive Vice President of the Kamson Corp., once learned from the news that one of his buildings, a 1,500 unit community, was on fire. He rushed there at once and was there for about 17 hours.

Near the end of that time, Beirne, wearing jeans and a ballcap and unshaven, was walking with the fire marshal when he turned around to find a microphone and camera in his face. Beirne wasn't startled and went on to inform viewers about his company's response, letting people know they got the Red Cross out right away, knowing some residents would be temporarily homeless.

Of course, his morn remembered something else from the story.

"The first call I get when I got home is from my mother," he said, "mad she says, 'The next time you're on TV, could you at least shower and shave?'"

Testing Their Skills

Pausing before answering is another effective tool, allowing the person being interviewed to digest the question and mentally prepare the proper response. This is another aspect Bart said she'd take home with her.

She had a chance to try it out during a mock interview with Strei. First, they watched a true story from a TV station in Sacramento, Calif., reporting about an apartment community on a college campus that housed a convicted rapist. The law states they can't be denied housing, nor can other residents be informed or warned about them by the management company.

As a mock follow-up, Strei interviewed Bart, pressing her on the issue. Each time she paused before answering, staying composed and throwing out this gem when asked how she feels that convicted rapists are 7.5 times more likely than other criminals to repeat their crimes:

"I'm a mother and a grandmother," she said. "The safety and well-being of our residents is very important to me.'"

The response made her more than a manager, Strei later told the crowd. It made her human.

"You're more effective when telling your story," he said.

You are also more effective when you pause, Bart said. She learned that lesson two years ago when responding to questions about the fire. She recalled at least eight TV stations at the site, all looking for comments. After being onsite for hours, being patient with reporters' questions was difficult. It wasn't until the next day when she found a sympathetic reporter, one whom she had cultivated a relationship with, that MEB's message got out.

"The one thing I learned from [the seminar] is to take my time," she said. "Because reporters would have that microphone right in front of you and I'm tired and exhausted. You're trying to give them an answer and get them out of the way. Take your time and answer more carefully. From now on I'll consciously say, 'Here's the message I need to project.'"

Get the Message Out

And the other message Strei and Tolbert wanted the crowd to get was this: Let reporters know what the company is doing; don't assume people know. Also, tell them when a point is important.

"Reporters are lazy," Tolbert said. "If you tell me something is key, I will go back to it [when editing]. I may not remember what it was you said, but I'll remember that you said it was important."

And in the end, the group attending this seminar will remember that what they heard was important. Because they also received a booklet outlining the information, they can quickly access reminders.

"Now we can go back and say, 'How can we use this information to do a better job,'" Stanforth said. "We do an OK job, all of us. But we can do a better job and make our industry more like the homebuilders. When they speak people listen. We need to be that way."

The REIT executive, for one, knows how she would handle her next emergency. Unlike the "no comment" she issued two years ago when asked for the cause of a tire, she would say, "At this point, it hasn't been determined. Our main point is getting residents situated." She would also feel more confident in front of the camera, or microphone, thanks to what she learned at the seminar.

"This just gets you into a comfort level," she said, "so you're not scared to be asked those questions."

RELATED ARTICLE: Arizona affiliate works some media magic.

They chartered buses, mobilized residents and delivered a message just like they said they would. They also defeated a measure that would have raised costs for their residents, just like they hoped they would.

The Arizona Multihousing Association (AMA) also provided a lesson in how to deal with the media. So said Nan Tolbert and Jeff Strei to a crowd of about 200 at their seminar, "How to Survive in a Media Crazy World."

Strei and Tolbert, of The Communication Center in Washington, D.C., used AMA as an example of how to do things right and how to be proactive in delivering your message. There's a reason they used AMA: Their tactics worked.

In March 2004, the city of Tucson faced a $26 million deficit in its 2004-05 budget. The city decided one way to shrink that was to pass a 2 percent sales tax on rents, affecting approximately 175,000 renters in the city, according to Natalie Lindquist, a Legislative Analyst and Research Assistant for AMA.

That would have reduced the deficit by $12.5 million. Many cities in Arizona already impose this tax on residential homes and apartments. But the measure had failed three times in Tucson. With housing costs already rising, AMA wanted to make sure Tucson failed once again.

Initially, AMA wasn't sure when the city, council would vote on this, so it reacted quickly. First it informed its residents by placing fliers on every door and by having apartment managers go door-to-door with petitions. AMA made sure residents knew it opposed this tax.

But that was only a start. Then AMA turned its attention to the media. Wayne Kaplan, who handles the AMA's public relations and community outreach program, sent news releases to various outlets. AMA also told the media it planued to have 1,000 renters attend the April 26 public hearing, when a vote was to be cast on the city budget.

That is a bold promise, but one on which AMA delivered. It helped that apartment managers rented buses, removing transportation as a reason some might not attend. AMA also held a barbecue, knowing it could be a long day.

At a rally outside the hearing, residents held two-sided signs--with "Not on Our Back" printed on one side and "Rent Tax" ill a circle with a strike through it on the other. They also wore bright orange stickers that read, "Not on My Back; I rent and I vote."

Consider their message heard: The sales tax was killed.

"They had a media action plan to get the media there," Strei said. "It's important to follow through. If you say you're going to get 1,000 renters there, you'd better get them there."

Tolbert, a former reporter, said, "They were so organized down to the barbecue. Reporters will always come for food."

But this situation also points out the need to develop relationships with reporters, Tolbert and Strei said. When a crisis arrives, you'll get a more sympathetic ear. Among the ways to cultivate a relationship is to take a reporter out to lunch every six months and send them possible story ideas.

"You build those relationships ahead of time," Tolbert said. "You need those reporters. They're more likely to give balance and clarity, and that's what you're looking for in those situations."--J.K.

John Keim is a freelance reporter from Centreville, Va.
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Author:Keim, John
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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