Crisis Communication: Starting with Values

by Peter Jakel

We are faced with two incredibly challenging events that are changing the course of our future as a nation right now… at the same time. And the multifamily industry is not immune from the effects of either event.

Racial injustice and inequality have been part of our experience as a country since its very inception, but it just recently stormed to the forefront with the senseless murder of George Floyd. The anger, sadness and dismay so many felt watching that horrifying video spilled over onto the streets in the form of rightful protests against the racial injustices and inequality the video painfully illustrated.

And it’s all taking place in the midst of a pandemic that shows a continued increase in Coronavirus cases in the U.S. and throughout the world. Let’s not kid ourselves. The first wave hasn’t ended (look at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Map and you’ll see that we have yet to hit the peak of the first wave), but here we are talking about a second wave. More than 100,000 people have died in the United States and our economy came to a physical standstill in many respects for about two months.

To say that communication is difficult for multifamily owners and operators in these challenging times would be worse than an understatement. Communication is downright daunting and seemingly never-ending, especially for onsite teams who are fielding the majority of the questions and are often waiting on an official stance from corporate. Residents are calling for apartment owner/operators to take a stand against racial injustice and inequality, while others put on a uniform as a police officer every day.

At the same time, some residents are demanding rent abatement due to Covid-19, rent rebates for closed amenities and cleaning procedures that go beyond even CDC recommendations, yet others are demanding we reopen amenities despite government orders, forgive rent for all residents, even those not impacted and more.

Often, it can feel as though we are ill-equipped to communicate in these difficult circumstances. Fortunately, many apartment owner/operators are plenty equipped. You’re equipped with your values and human resources policies that reject discrimination and racism and put the well-being and safety of your residents and teams first.

Communication, especially when it comes to resident-facing public relations, should always come from a place of your deeply held beliefs as an organization. That’s why values are so important for the organization. They’re not just a poster on the walls of your corporate break rooms or a well-designed page on your website. They set the highest-level course for your organization both strategically and ethically.

Knowing your values and communicating them in challenging scenarios is often easier said than done, so here’s a roadmap for communication during these trying times:

  1. Listen and learn. Put every ounce of your desire to say something or fight the messages you’re hearing on hold for at least a day. Eliminate all of your biases from your brain and just listen. Listen to the protesters, listen to every resident. Even those who ask for free rent when they stub their toe on a wall. Listen to your associates and most of all listen to diverse voices.
  2. Review your values. Again, resist the urge to comment and keep your personal biases under lock and key. Read your company values closely. If you don’t have values, read the relevant HR policies in your manual. Internalize the meaning of those values and apply them to the situation in your mind.
  3. Talk to those who are impacted. This is going to be the most difficult part of this exercise because you have to resist the urge to defend yourself or your organization. But you need to have a raw conversation with people who are impacted by the issue most. For example, to address the protests, set up individual calls with people of color in your organization and possibly some residents you’ve met during your site visits. Let them know you want the honest, raw truth and explain that there will be no retaliation no matter what is said in that private conversation. Consider even drafting a contract that says they can say literally anything to you and you will not act against them. Then, ask the challenging questions, such as: “What mistakes have we made as an organization?”, “What systemic racism do you see within our organization?”, and “What can we do to address our failures?”
  4. Now, put your thoughts on paper. If you’re the outlining kind of writer, outline what you think the response should be as an organization, reminding yourself of the values you’ve canonized as your beliefs to the entire company for years. Incorporate your failures or challenges as an organization and what you are going to do to address them. Eventually, write the entire letter you want to send.
  5. Get input from your communications team or an external agency. Don’t just hit send. This is way too sensitive of a topic to not get additional feedback. Ask your communications team, which is probably itching to send something out by now, to review the piece you put together and pick it apart. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll reach out to impacted individuals within the company and ask them to provide feedback.
  6. Distribute. Now it gets real. You have to actually distribute the communication in the best way possible for your organization. It could be via a conference call with all associates, via email or via social media.
  7. Respond. Finally, you’re going to get questions and even some people who don’t think you did enough or said too much. Expect and welcome criticism as it is a given on these types of issues. They are too complex and nuanced for you to simply “get it right” the first time.

These challenging situations dismantle the most common misconception about public relations. Public relations isn’t about convincing people to believe what you believe or to act in the way you want them to act. That’s the wrong approach.

Public relations is an iterative process designed to build mutually beneficial relationships through communication. When communication is rooted in company values and an effort is made by both parties to continue the dialogue in an open and vulnerable way, criticism should be an expected occurrence. But it’s also the tipping point in which the relationship becomes stronger and mutually beneficial. That is the ultimate goal and what will carry organizations through the next challenging season.

Honest, values-based dialogue — that’s how you get through these unprecedented and difficult times.

Leave a Reply