FLASH! Heartless co-op board in Queens forbids a 9/11 family from hanging a flag in the window! FLASH! Toothless condo board on Long Island allows skateboarding teenagers to run rampant despite apartment-owners’ complaints! FLASH! … no, wait. Not FLASH. Just a regular story. What’s your board doing in terms of green initiatives? What’s the pet policy? How did you find the right contractor for that capital improvement project?
Press coverage comes in all types and sizes, but in only two flavors – good and bad. And to a huge extent, that’s up to you. Whether it’s a crisis that threatens to embarrass your building and drive down property values, or a bread-and-butter “service” story that can help instruct other boards, you need to know how to deal with the press.
“It can be nerve-wracking to talk to the press, because who knows where your words will go,” admits Tessa Kelley, an account executive at the public relations firm Rubenstein Communications, where the clients include Major League Baseball, the Museum of Modern Art, Pfizer, Paramount Pictures, and virtually every major real estate developer in New York City. “But at the end of the day,” Kelley says, “it can be necessary, because you want people to know exactly what you stand for.”
Michael Tumminia, the former board president of the 1,728-apartment Seward Park cooperative, couldn’t agree more. Indeed, he says, his board “created a position called ‘public affairs officer’ to deal with things external to the co-op: elected officials, the press, and local organizations. That person essentially becomes the board’s spokesperson, and is the person management would contact in the event the press reaches out to the co-op for any reason. I think every co-op should have one.” Tumminia himself volunteered to be Seward Park’s first such officer.
Is it really that important for boards to deal with the press effectively? Isn’t it easier to just ignore tempests in teapots and assume they’ll all be forgotten about in a few days? No, because as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin points out in the film The Social Network, the internet isn’t written in pencil but in pen. What happens in the press stays in the press. For better or worse, your co-op or condo exists in a world where everything from legitimate news to gossip is affecting how the world perceives you. We all know some addresses have a prestigious reputation, with much sought-after apartments. And then there are “toxic buildings” perceived to have difficult boards, where buyers shy away.
Those co-ops and condos “look bad,” explains Dianne Collins, an independent publicist whose clients have included major entertainment personalities. “It’s all about image, image, image.”
There are two general circumstances where the press might want to speak to a co-op or condo board: simple, everyday reportorial features and in response to some problem gone public.
The first type is simple enough. A real estate columnist from The New York Times or a writer from some business magazine – writing about co-ops refinancing, or the pros and cons of laundry-room companies, or the effects of landmarking on capital improvements – will usually speak first with managing agents to get their views, and then often will ask to speak to board members to get co-op/condo directors’ own unique, frontline perspective.
“This is your opportunity to make the board look as good as possible,” Collins says. “The board president or some other officer – someone with the overall picture of what’s going on – should be able to give honest, knowledgeable answers that show that here’s a building where the board really understands these issues.”
With more involved stories, she suggests, “If the board is smart, they’ll also get a resident they’re in good standing with to give a quote about how good and efficient the board is. And also get a staff member, so that the concierge or the superintendent can talk about their working relationship with the board.”
Flipping this around, the board can be proactive with the press, says Seward Park’s Tumminia. “Your public affairs officer should establish relationships with local bloggers and as many press contacts as possible,” he says. “When we have something good to talk about, I can pick up phone and contact bloggers and press who cover the Lower East Side.” For instance, “Our grand marshal for our Halloween parade is [New York State Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver. I called up [bloggers and press] and said, ‘This is what’s going on.’ And it’s a good story, a real story.”
But where you’ll really stand or fall is with crisis stories. When co-op and condo boards let themselves be made to look bad, it’s not just local news anymore – it’s national news. This affects not just property values and appeal to potential buyers, but also your residents’ morale. No one wants to live in a place that is vilified – and boards that let their buildings be vilified aren’t doing their job.
“Obviously, you want to try to prevent a crisis, and be mindful what you are susceptible to and what kinds of things get you into trouble,” says Kelley of Rubinstein. “But if a crisis happens, the best thing is to take action. Bottling up only makes matters worse. Even if a matter cannot be fixed immediately, it’s important to address the audience.”
Take examples like those mentioned earlier – the board that forbade a 9/11 family from hanging a flag in their window or the one that lets teenagers skateboard in the front of the property – or other cases where a person complains that your elections are rigged, or that you’re bullying pet-owners, or you discriminate. A reporter calls to get your side of the story. You’re actually being given an exquisite opportunity for more than just damage control. And you say, “No comment.” How crazy is that?
“The danger of not responding is that the person making the complaint looks correct,” says Collins. “If you don’t respond, the public thinks that person is right – it looks like their story is true.”
Hunkering down, says Kelley, gives the public “an opportunity to make assumptions and start deciding the reason behind the problem. You need to speak out. Whether something is untrue or true, you need to address it. You need to keep everyone informed as much as possible. Otherwise, they’re going to form their own opinions” based on partial and possibly erroneous or unfairly one-sided information.
What do you do when you get such a call? “Handle it is as diplomatically as possible,” says former board president Tumminia.
Do not get emotional, do not get defensive. “Be professional and responsible,” he says. “Don’t get into defending your position yet, because you might not be aware of the whole situation and you want all your facts in a row. The last thing you want to do is make a statement that is inaccurate. Say, ‘We’re sorry to hear something might have occurred. I’ll look into it and see what transpired and get back to you.’ Or, ‘I wasn’t aware of that; let me get my facts straight and call you back.’ And then,” he emphasizes, “you call them back.”
“I don’t say, ‘No comment,’” says Kelley. “I say, ‘Let me call you back, let me make sure we’re all on the same page.’ And then call back as quickly as possible and address it.” For newspaper or online reporters on a tight deadline, call back within an hour. Otherwise, it’s usually okay to take a day if necessary.
In preparation for your calling back, your next step is to confer with your fellow board members and to come up with appropriate talking points. Let your managing agent know, and get input if you think it will help. In very serious or delicate cases, confer with your attorney. Collins suggests having a publicist on retainer, to whom you can essentially hand off everything to be dealt with on your behalf.
Here’s the next, final, and perhaps most important tip: actually address the situation that the shareholder, unit-owner, or other party has brought up. “You’re going to have to deal with it one way or the other, and it’s best to deal with things sooner rather than later,” advises Kelley. “Speak with the shareholder,” she suggests. You needn’t try to negotiate a solution at this point, but you do need to “deal with them so that they calm down. But make it sincere.”
If you’re legitimately in the wrong – and heaven knows we all can be; maybe you didn’t know it was reasonable to put a curb cut for a wheelchair at a certain spot – then apologize and take steps to remediate the situation. If you believe you’re in the right, apologize for the hard feelings without apologizing for your actions.
“It doesn’t have to be a public apology, but it’s important to address their concerns first,” says Kelley. “Explain it’s nothing personal, it’s policy. Then when the press asks about it, you’re able to say, ‘We’ve apologized for the way it was handled, we never meant to have any hard feelings, we’ve come to a compromise,’ or ‘We’re negotiating a solution.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Oh, well, they’re being ridiculous and we’re not dealing with them.’”
Then, she suggests, “Try to resolve [the issue] in a way acceptable to the shareholder as well as to the co-op.” If it’s a gray area, compromise. If you’re unequivocally in the right, then getting the pertinent the facts out to the shareholder and the press only helps you look reasonable and responsible.
“If it’s an investigative thing, you have to be careful not to hurt yourself,” Kelley cautions. “But if you’re sharing accurate information, that should be helpful to you.”
Tumminia suggests particular caution during times of “litigation going through the legal system.” If you can tell the press honestly that the matter is being worked on by each party’s attorney, and that speaking at length about it may jeopardize negotiations, then do so. “Ultimately, the facts are going to drive your response.”
And before any of this even comes up, board members can practice speaking with the press among themselves. “If you don’t have your own publicity person it may help to practice with someone – to go over your talking points or the mission of your board or the key things you want out there,” says Collins. The pen is mightier than the sword. It’s also mightier than the board. The trick is to understand the pen – and to use it so that nobody draws the wrong conclusions.