Most of the time, this is a great industry that we work in. But at any given apartment community on any given day, we all know that anything can happen, from burglaries fires to rapes, drug busts or worse. Yet many apartment operators don’t have media policies and the training tools in place to help on-site staff react appropriately and communicate effectively when the media shows up. We asked Heather Whaling, owner of Geben Communication, to join us to share her expertise in the fields of crisis communication, PR and interacting with the media.

There were a LOT of great comments throughout this chat — this recap is a bit longer than usual, but trust me, it’s all worth the read. Here are the highlights from the discussion:

Why is a crisis communications plan important? What should be in it?

  • Heather Whaling: There’s a saying in PR about crisis: If you’re not quick, you’re not relevant.
  • Heather Whaling: Crisis plans should include: Crisis team, spokesperson, contact info (internal & external), approval/protocol process.
  • Heather Whaling: Plans shld also include responses/messages for potential situations. Prepare ahead of time for to mitigate damage during crisis.
  • Lesa LaRocca: Level headed on site team who manage their emotions and get authorities and corp exec immediately in the know.
  • Heather Whaling: Think about a variety of tactics: letters, emails, “town hall”-style meeting, video blog update, etc.
  • Heather Whaling: (When asked about an acceptable response time) Quick depends on the specific situation. Typically, 24 hours is way too long …
  • Justin Dunckel: Designate one Media Spokesperson and stick with it. Communicating w/ residents via website bulletin board or txt message is huge.
  • Heather Whaling: In crisis plan, you should ID internal & external audiences. Residents, media, maybe greater community or investors?
  • Justin Dunckel: Create a manifest…know who is impacted and follow-up a ton. Overdeliver information and updates.
  • Heather Whaling: Think through a variety of tactics. The situation will dictate what’s effective.
  • Heather Whaling: PM, reg. managers & corporate should work together before crisis to develop a plan. Preparation is key.
  • Gillian Luce: Brainstorm worse case scenarios, prepare hypothetical responses and implement them in2 ur crisis management plan. (i.e. Fire)

Who do you recommend for spokesperson? Same for residents vs media? (from Laurel Zacher)

Heather Whaling: Doesn’t have to be the same person. For media, needs to be someone who can do well in front of a camera.

Unfortunately, many props don’t have good email lists, and many don’t have blogs. Any recommendations? (from Lisa Trosien)

Heather Whaling: Traditional communication still works. Letters in the mailbox are still effective. 🙂

What do you do when the media contacts you? How do you respond?

  • Heather Whaling: Before a crisis, property should identify an “official” media spokesperson. Seek professional media training if necessary.
  • Jonathan Saar: There should be standard response statements in place.
  • Heather Whaling: Employees shouldn’t interact w/ media during a crisis. They may not know all the details. Instead, direct media to spokesperson.
  • Misty Browning: Everyone in the company needs to know the one person they can direct the media to. Do not have many diff people communicating.
  • Lesa LaRocca: Keep it polite & professional, never speculate. Allow residents their privacy & designate one exec team member / PR rep.
  • Heather Whaling: Spokesperson needs to answer questions honestly. No “spin.” Emphasize steps being taken to fix the situation.
  • Gillian Luce: Need 2 prepare, ask what ? is & deadline. Call back w/statement. IMPORTANT to represent co in best way!
  • If U already have relationships w/ local reporters, turn 2 these trusted sources to help get your message out.
  • Heather Whaling: I’d suggest not having a third-party PR person as the “official” spokesperson to the residents.
  • Lesa LaRocca: Keep list of residents who are witnesses as they will become a media target at some point. Keep close to that situation.
  • Heather Whaling: In crisis, things move quickly. Give reporters fact sheets or other documentation to make sure they have the facts.
  • Justin Dunckel: Waiting for “legal” people only puts you that much further behind in crisis recovery.
  • Heather Whaling: Before the crisis, ID what kinds of problems req legal counsel & have initial statement approved.
  • Heather Whaling: “No comment” should always be avoided. 🙂

My property had a rape and its all over the news. How do I handle the press? The residents? The prospects?

  • Heather Whaling: 1) Cooperate w/ legal authorities.
  • Gillian Luce: Need 2 inform residents & share what measures are being taken 2 keep them safe. A ‘town-hall’ style meeting would be gr8.
  • Heather Whaling: 2) Stay in constant contact w/ residents. (This is why social media [blog, FB, Twitter, Ning] is so important!)
  • Heather Blume: There’s a prop in my college town that has been fighting this for over 13 years. they educate the residents @ MI
  • Erica Campbell: First and foremost you need to make your residents feel safe and that the issue is being handled by law enforcement.
  • Heather Whaling: 3) Re: press: Explain that you’re cooperating w/ authorities; priority is finding suspect & that u r taking steps to increase security.
  • Erica Campbell: Make residents aware of any support groups that might be offered.
  • Heather Whaling: 4) Perception = reality. Be proactive. Can you add lighting or add’l night-time patrol to make residents/prospects feel safer?
  • Heather Blume: What the prop in my college town did was work with a”campus escort” system already in place – exten the service to the prop.
  • Lesa LaRocca: What about informing your closest competitors so they have accurate info and not fabricate?
  • Sean Williams: Be sure you tell the truth, no speculation. Push attys on this – they typc’ly want to clam up.
  • Lesa LaRocca: What may grow from the experience is closer community, resident ambassador program, crime watch program. Find the good.

Most crisis situations happen when the corporate office is closed. What do I do when I’m ‘on the spot’ with no instruction?

  • Crime can happen anywhere. Educate residents on how 2 prevent crime by locking doors, don’t buzz anyone in you don’t know, etc.
  • Heather Whaling: This is why a crisis plan is necessary. Scenarios & responses should be thought out in advanced whenever possible.
  • Misty Browning: That is y it is so important to have a point person to deal with the press. Your first priority is your residents.
  • Laurel Zacher: We’ve given our teams 4 safe responses if pinned down and my cell to call 24/7.
  • Heather Whaling: Don’t ever say no comment … even if you’re put “on the spot.”
  • Heather Whaling: That’s the difference btwn a good PR person and a not so good one. Good PR understands social, too. 🙂

What do you do if your owner/boss makes a boneheaded remark? Like Horizon Realty did with the ‘mold tweet’? (from Lisa Trosien)

Heather Whaling: Apologize if possible … be proactive and aggressive w/ the “right” communication going forward.

Can the media camp out on my property? Can I make them leave?

  • Heather Whaling: Media can’t camp out on private property. But, they can be in the streets, on sidewalks, parks, etc.
  • Heather Blume: Yes you can make them leave… but make sure you understand ramifications of your actions & do it in a PROFESSIONAL way.
  • Heather Whaling: Don’t make a situation worse by creating a scene. Tell media when & where you’ll have info to share.
  • Justin Dunckel: In my opinion the quicker you ask them to leave, the longer they stay and dig. Get the story,report facts, move on.
  • Heather Blume: One side note on the media thing – don’t forget that anyone with a cell phone COULD be a camera man… this includes your residents.
  • Heather Whaling: *Most* reporters aren’t out to “get” you. They want facts. If you’re quick & forthcoming w/ info, you’ll be better off.
  • Sean Williams: TV lives on visuals – calm, collected and respectful makes lousy TV – so that’s what you give em!

How do you ‘recover’ from something like a murder, assault or fire at your property?

  • Justin Dunckel: Not a plug for our blog at all, but I believe you can recover by taking this stuff head on.
  • Heather Whaling: It takes time to rebuild trust. Couple strong communication w/ meaningful actions to show you’re making necessary changes.
  • Heather Blume: Honesty honesty honesty – and be realistic about the time it takes to rebuild a reputation.
  • Gillian Luce: Implement new safety procedures, comm on regular basis w/residents, be sincere & understanding. Ppl will identify.
  • Heather Whaling: Put yourselves in residents’/prospects’ shoes. What can you do to rebuild trust and credibility?

Other good nuggets from throughout the discussion:

  • Erica Campbell: Google RSS Reader is a great free tool to monitor all of your mentions -if crisis occurs be on top of reputation monitoring.
  • Justin Dunckel: (Our) manual is bright red, yes it’s at every prop, and yes they sign off at orientation. Review all the time.

For more on PR and media relations, we encourage you to check out Heather’s blog at

More resources:

Does your company have a crisis communication plan? Do you have regular media training in place? Can you share an example of a situation when your crisis plan worked like it’s supposed to? Leave your experiences in the comments!

(This week’s #AptChat included 401 tweets from 49 different contributors.)