by Eric Berman, Communications Director, Massachusetts Association of REALTORS®
Odds are good that you will have to deal with a crisis at some point. And when you do, you’ll want to be prepared with a crisis communications plan.
Even when you take the right steps and do the right things, you can still have a crisis on your hands. How you react and communicate to the media, members, employees, and the public will determine how well your association recovers.
Here’s one I lived through: We were going through the process of preparing our monthly pending home sales data to release to the media, but the figures seemed too high. We knew one of our three MLSs in Massachusetts had made some changes to its pending sales data. To be sure we were not affected, we asked the MLS and our analytics vendor and felt good the data was correct. As release day approached, we decided to hold off and ask some more questions just to be safe. Again, the answers seemed good and we released the data to the media and members. As it turns out, the data was wrong; we now had a crisis that threatened our reputation.
A crisis is any situation that threatens the reputation of your association or its members, usually exacerbated by negative media attention. For example, a legal dispute, theft, accident, or natural or manmade disaster can be a crisis (see p. 14 for more), along with any situation in which the media or the general public perceives your association to have acted improperly.
Why craft a plan?
Odds are good that you will have to deal with a crisis at some point. And when you do, you’ll want to be prepared with a crisis communications plan. Without a plan, you have little chance of recovery. Imagine your leadership speaking directly to the media with their personal take on the crisis or laying blame. Imagine issuing statements to members before the facts are checked. Imagine a member claiming to be a spokesperson for the association and going viral on social media with fabrications. All of this and worse could happen if you, your leadership, and your staff aren’t following the same crisis communications plan.
Crisis communication planning
Most experts agree that you need to appoint a crisis team to develop a communications plan. For a REALTOR® association, this group includes the CEO, communications director, general counsel, finance or human resources director, and president. For this group to be effective in an actual crisis it needs to be small, so don’t include the entire staff or entire board of directors. For smaller associations, the AE, the president, and legal counsel will do.
The first job of this group is to brainstorm as many potential crises as possible that could impact the association, such as a natural disaster, the tragic death of a member, the arrest of a member on a criminal charge, or the association’s support of or opposition to a controversial legislative initiative. Then narrow it down to the top five scenarios that are the most likely to occur, and focus on preparing for those. Preparing for your top five will give you the framework to be able to competently deal with any other crisis that may arise.
Preparation for each scenario includes determining who the right spokesperson is for each situation. Maybe it would be the AE in all cases, maybe the president if he or she has had media training. Inform your board and staff that they are not permitted to speak to the media on behalf of the association because there are designated representatives.
I also recommend that you approach crisis communications preparation with the goal of being as transparent and open as possible (understanding there are always some things you won’t be able to say). Remember, it’s a communications plan, not a no-comment plan. If your team concurs that an apology should be issued, then apologize. If your team feels the crisis stems from a misunderstanding, then provide the facts. If your team feels the association must react to a situation, weigh in with the facts you have or with personal sentiment where appropriate. You should also practice answering difficult and uncomfortable questions.
When a crisis breaks, the longer you wait to respond, the less chance you have of controlling the message. Quick action can keep a problem from escalating into a crisis.
Case study in crisis communications
The Scottsdale Area Association of REALTORS® had a crisis in 2013 that served as a learning experience for its team. The association, through its political action committee “Quality of Life Matters,” with financial support from a National Association of REALTORS® independent expenditure grant, campaigned in favor of asking voters to approve up to $212.1 million in bonds that would pay for 39 public projects and result in a slight property tax increase.
The association made a filing error with the city in not disclosing the source of the funding within the deadline and inadvertently did not identify the PAC in its campaign phone calls. Although it was a clerical mistake and something the association fixed with the city after refiling and paying a fine, a group of vocal members opposed to the bond went to the media. Headlines read, “Scottsdale protesters rally against REALTOR® group bond-election donations” and an article showed a photo of protesters outside the association office with signs saying, “SAAR Doesn’t Speak for Me” and “Keep Chicago Politics Out of Scottsdale.”
“We immediately put together a small group that included our CEO, president, PR firm, and me to decide on a response,” says Amanda Sue Eberson, director of communications and technology at SAAR. “We were able to reach out to the media and correct story errors, and then we apologized to our members and explained what happened.”
In a written statement to the media, SAAR elaborated on the mistake, its fault in the mistake, its steps to remedy the situation, and the reasons behind supporting the bonds. The statement provided salient quotes from the chairman of Scottsdale’s PAC that were picked up by the media, including, “This new collaboration of contributors and vendors has resulted in communication and technical and reporting problems,” and our members “do not stand to directly benefit from any of the projects any more or less than all citizens benefit when our infrastructure is up to date and in good repair.”
The resulting headlines—”REALTORS® group admits error in campaign on behalf of Scottsdale bonds”—were tame, due in part to the association’s quick action.
“After it was all over, we put together a comprehensive crisis communications plan,” says Eberson.
So, how did it end with our data crisis? Well, the media coverage in the aftermath wasn’t pleasant to read, but it did end. We were able to take advantage of our good relationship with the media to address the error and how we planned to correct it. We also didn’t issue the data again for several months and tested it until we were sure it was correct. For the next several months afterward, we also included a statement at the end of the MLS release explaining what happened.
Don’t let a real crisis force you develop a crisis communications plan. Act now.
When a crisis hits, how you react will determine success or failure.
Step 1. Gather as much information as possible, confirm whether there is actually a crisis, and assemble your crisis team.
Step 2. If there is a crisis, communicate it to your staff members (explaining their roles) and acknowledge it to your stakeholders (by e-mail, news releases, social media, and other channels) as fast as possible.
Step 3. Don’t speculate, but do give a time frame for your next announcement, such as “We are aware of the situation and we are confirming the details. We will give you an update at noon.” Then continue to be in contact with your stakeholders, even if it is to tell them you have no further information.
Step 4. Make sure your key messages are adapted for the specific situation.
Step 5. Be compassionate and human. In any statement you make, focus on the people who were affected.
Step 6. After the breaking news has passed, explain what happened and how you plan to correct it or prevent it from happening again.
Step 7. Post-event analysis is critical. What did you learn from this? What worked? What didn’t? Then modify your plans accordingly for the future.
Video Crisis Response
A video response to a crisis can quickly add a sense of humility, remorse, dignity, or confidence to your message that is often difficult to convey on paper. But before you set up your tripod, consider these tips.
- Always read from a prepared statement
- Dress appropriately and set in a professional environment
- Be clear, transparent, and informative
- State facts or reasons why you can’t release certain facts
- Do not hide behind excuses or brevity
Social Media Crisis Response: Own the Conversation
The instant communication afforded by social media is a blessing and a curse when it comes to crisis response and management. On one hand, associations can respond quickly with information. On the other hand, disinformation can spiral out of control just as quickly. Resist the temptation to respond to (and bring more attention to) every negative comment online, but do take control of the crisis conversation by issuing frequent updates and information. Commit to establishing a social media dialogue (not monologue) with members and the public.
Having a social media policy for staff, leaders, and volunteers is invaluable in a crisis situation. There are a wealth of models online, but in essence, ensure that your policy outlines clear rules for engagement online. For example, state that personal opinions are not to be represented as association positions, confidential association information is not to be posted online, and copyright laws must be adhered to.
Rather than using personal social media accounts, establish branded, official association accounts from which to communicate, yet include the sender’s photo—not just your association logo—to add sincerity and authenticity. Entrust passwords and administration responsibilities only to staff.
Work to build the following of your official social media outlets in order to reach members and the public with your information. In a crisis scenario, use social media to funnel attention to a single source of information, such as your website. This will help you keep the volume of information on social media from becoming unmanageable.
Monitor social media to track issues and gauge public understanding of an issue. There’s no shortage of social media monitoring software and apps at a wide range of price points, but start with setting up a Google alert with your association name or ask tech-savvy members to help. Lastly, identify the core influencers in your social media community and those who may help you get the word out.