How to avoid becoming a headline - or successfully dealing with it if you do

As you know, from time to time, HOAs end up in the news for perceived abuses to residents of an association or to question actions taken by the board or management.  While the allegations in the news coverage may or may not be true, it's rare to see a flattering story about an HOA.  As a result, it's important to have a plan in place to address difficult issues that may arise in your association and the subsequent media coverage.      

Chuck Montera, a public relations and issues management professional with Sigler Communications, works routinely on HOA issues and was kind enough to provide us with the following article on crisis management to share with our readers.  Instead of relying on an attorney to provide advice on public relations issues - we thought it would be helpful for you to get advice straight from a public relations expert.  

 

How to avoid becoming a headline – or successfully dealing with it if you do

By Chuck Montera, Sigler Communications, Inc.

 

When you see homeowners associations in the news or on TV, the majority of these stories share common traits. It’s usually a variation of ‘David vs. Goliath,’ with the homeowner playing the role of David fighting an unreasonable HOA board and/or management company – a.k.a. Goliath.

 

Recent headlines include:

“3-year-old artist battles HOA over sidewalk chalk art.”

“Disabled vet battles HOA over handicap parking space”

“HOA requests dog DNA to solve poop mystery”

 

Although these headlines may seem humorous or ridiculous to the average person, they are no laughing matter to the HOA board, management company or legal counsel embroiled in the story.

 

So how do you avoid becoming the next headline or sucessfully deal with a media crisis should one arise? An invaluable tool employed by very few HOAs or businesses, for that matter, is developing a crisis communications plan. 

 

In an age of real-time reporting of news and scandals, a crisis plan will help preserve and protect your association’s reputation and brand.

 

A crisis communications plan can also ward off the onset of a crisis as well. The old adage, “perception is reality” validates the need to respond to potential or perceived issues before they escalate — regardless if alleged claims are factual or not.

 

Benefits of having a crisis management plan in place will help you identify and prepare the people who will speak for your organization; discern which authorities, employees and homeowners to notify and how; identify key messages you want conveyed that explains how you are managing the crisis; and disseminate consistent and accurate information.

  

When developing a crisis communication plan, the following planning and communicating fundamentals should be considered:

 

·        Assess your vulnerabilities. Are you at risk for an issue to be made public and become a headline? Look at resolving the issue before it goes to the media.  

·        Identify a crisis communications team, including staff and legal counsel. Consider hiring a PR specialist if you need help developing and implementing a crisis plan. 

·        Develop a notification plan and put infrastructure in place to ensure you can access vital employee and association information from any location.

·        Establish communications protocols. Board members, managers, spokespeople need to know what to do (and not to do) and who to contact during a crisis.

·        Identify those affected by the crisis. Who do you need to contact and inform? Tailor what you say and how you say it by each audience. Identify the best way to communicate with each—personal briefings, issuing a media statement, memos/letters, e-mails, phone calls and/or your Web site.

·        Identify and train key spokespeople who work well under pressure, relate to various audiences, understand your association and the crisis’ implications, and can deliver key messages consistently and effectively. These individuals – and only these individuals – should be used.

·        Develop no more than three key messages per audience, and create response guidelines for various crisis scenarios in advance. Think through questions likely to be asked about why the crisis occurred and how you are responding.

·        When a crisis occurs, make decisions quickly and take action. Don’t speculate. Take time to thoroughly assess what happened and why and get the facts before communicating. Know with absolute certainty before saying anything. If you don’t know, it’s OK to say you don’t know. You can share more details as you learn them.

·        Don’t lie or avoid communicating. It makes you appear untrustworthy, unresponsive and uncaring. Admit the mistake and apologize if it is appropriate. People don’t care what you know—they care that you care.

·        Share what you are doing to ensure a similar crisis does not occur again.

·        When talking with the media, avoid saying “no comment.” Again, it makes you appear like you have something to hide. You have the right not to respond to speculative questions or “what if” scenarios. 

·        Cooperate with media and return calls as soon as possible. Don’t stall. Reporters will get the story from somewhere—it should come from you to be accurate. 

·        Monitor the crisis and make adjustments when needed. Change key messages, how you communicate and to whom depending on the situation. If something isn’t working, try a different approach.

 

Taking the time to adequately prepare for a crisis will help insulate your association or business and preserve your reputation. Putting processes in place in advance can help you respond more calmly — and much more effectively — when a crisis occurs.