In the game of home-builder PR nightmare one-upsmanship, Carol Ruiz might have the dubious distinction of being the winner. Ruiz once worked with a builder with a senior-housing community that included an assisted-living facility. The family of a resident went to the press with a story that the “evil housing company was kicking out their grandmother—on Christmas Eve.”
“Ouch! That was a tough one,” says Ruiz, who owns NewGround PR & Marketing, in Marina Del Rey, Calif., and has worked with home builders for more than 20 years.
The back story was that the resident’s doctor had determined that she needed to go into a nursing home because of her failing health. Once that determination was made, there was a 30-day window in which she legally had to be moved, but the family had refused to take any action. Unfortunately, the 30 days ended on Christmas Eve. Legally, the company had to evict her to get her moved.
Tips for handling negative press
1. Have a dedicated spokesperson — Ideally the president, founder, or CEO.
2. Develop positive talking points — These key message points should speak to the strengths of the company. They could be your length of time in business, how long your employees have worked for you, or your record for quality.
3. Gather and analyze the facts — Get all the facts, both good and bad, about what has happened.
4. Have a media-request policy — Implement a plan for the entire company, from the receptionist to the CEO, for handling media requests. If a member of the press calls, get all their information and have a spokesperson call them back right away.
5. Never say “no comment” — Always tell the truth and avoid the phrase “no comment.”
6. Push it off page 1 — Using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, push websites with negative reviews and disparaging comments off the first few pages of a web search.
7. Be proactive — If you anticipate a negative situation coming, such as layoffs or bankruptcy, be proactive and call the media to get your talking points out front.
8. Anticipate tough questions — Before talking to the press, put together a list of questions they might ask. Then practice answering them.
9. Consider a new name — Worse case, if you can’t shake a negative story and it’s putting your business in serious jeopardy, consider shutting down and re-starting your company under a new name.
Wisely, the company had a crisis plan in place to be able to respond quickly to the calls from the press, even on a holiday.
“The president of the company had talking points about the legalities and the history of the company,” Ruiz says. “We turned the situation around and made them look like a caring company. The key was directness, quickness, and having key talking points in mind at all times. The news was very fair with them.”
Sooner or later, virtually every builder will have to deal with negative press. It could be a disgruntled homeowner who files a lawsuit, environmental protesters, a jobsite accident, or an executive under investigation for malfeasance. In recent years, the most common scenario has been a builder filing for bankruptcy. It’s never a pleasant experience, but handled correctly, the damage can be minimized.
The Worst Thing You Can Do
The most common—and the worst—mistake builders can make during a PR crisis is to hide from the press, Ruiz says.
“Builders go underground when things are tough and won’t talk to the press,” she says. “When we can get them to go talk to the press face to face, it always results in positive press. It’s never failed to happen.”
There’s a misconception among many builders that they can keep a story out of the press by refusing to comment. That can be a fatal mistake, and one that happens far too often, says Robert W. Weinhold, Jr., founder of Fallston Group, a crisis management and communications firm headquartered in Baltimore.
“Our core mantra is if you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and it certainly won’t be the story you want told,” Weinhold says. “Not handling a crisis costs organizations time, money, customers, and ultimately careers if not planned for. It will not go away.”
His experience has been that when confronted with an issue, most organizations become confused and disoriented.
“There’s a real sense of paralysis at times,” he says. “The leaders are getting advice from their attorneys not to say anything, but they’re looking through the lens of civil or criminal law. Meanwhile, you’re losing in the court of public opinion and your brand equity drops very quickly. Even if you win in court, the business can become unprofitable.”
The other major mistake that leaders of organizations make in a crisis is that they don’t step up to the plate, take responsibility, and articulate their message, says Weinhold. They often speculate on what they think they know instead of sticking to the facts. Then they lose their credibility.
“Look at BP,” he says, referring to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “Transocean, BP, and Halliburton were all pointing fingers at each other when they went before Congress. The president was in the Rose Garden chastising all three organizations for not stepping up and taking ownership. That’s not a good day.”
What to Say and Who Should Say It
While every situation will be unique, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful. The best approach is to have a clear and strategic plan that you can put into place at any time, Ruiz says. When something happens:
- Get all of the facts, both good and bad, about what has happened.
- Analyze the information.
- Develop three key message points that are positive about the company.
- Choose a spokesperson.
- Implement a plan for the entire company, from the receptionist to the CEO, for handling media requests. If a member of the press calls, get all their information and have spokesperson call them back.
- Ideally, the spokesperson should be the company president. “It just makes you look good if the head of the company is talking to the press in an open, honest way,” says Ruiz. “It’s so important to be honest. We pound this into our clients. Tell the truth. If they don’t find it out from you and you’re not controlling the message, you’re in trouble.”
The key message points should speak to the strengths of your company. They could be your length of time in business, how long your employees have worked for you, your record for quality, or your commitment to the community. They could be your ranking on the Housing Giants list, national awards you’ve won, the number of houses you’ve built, or your customer satisfaction ratings.
Before talking to the press, put together a list of questions—including tough ones—they may ask. Then practice answering them. “You can answer them in an honest way—briefly, never volunteer information—and then go back to your talking points.
The one thing you should never say to the press, Ruiz says, is “no comment.”
“The words ‘no comment’ are so slimy,” she says.
Getting in Front of the Story
Sometimes you won’t have any warning about a problem that generates negative press—an employee gets arrested or there’s an accident on a jobsite—but sometimes you will. An employee layoff, a product recall, or a foreclosure are good examples. When that happens, it’s not a bad idea to take control of the situation and call the media yourself. Flammer saw this happen with a friend of hers who represented a company that had a large layoff.
“They decided to get in front of it instead of waiting for the press to call,” she says. “They took a bad situation and nipped it in the bud. If you’re 80 percent sure the press is going to find out about it anyway, you have the opportunity to get your talking points in a story instead of them digging around to try to find something.”
New-home sales trainer Bob Schultz had that experience when he was a sales manager. His builder had been cited for illegally advertising a Florida development in New York; the story made the papers. They won their case because the magazine in which the advertisement ran actually was printed in New Jersey.
“We got it all straightened out and had a little press conference of our own,” says Schultz. “What we learned from our legal counsel was that as soon as we had good news, we wanted to be telling that story.”
Putting It Behind You
The problem with negative press in today’s world is that it really never goes away. It might fall off the front page, but with customers searching online for builders, a negative story can pop up for years.
Brad Bombardiere with Reality Concepts, in Centennial, Colo., works with builders to push negative stories and comments far enough down in search results that most shoppers won’t see them. The strategy is to leverage positive comments, articles, and websites. “As an SEO company, we’ll link to those, bookmark those, and blog about them to cause those to naturally rise in the results,” he says. “It pushes the negative articles to page 2 or 3.”
You could take a hard-nosed approach and litigate, but you’re dealing with the First Amendment, says Bombardiere. “The media and Internet laws are pretty specific,” he says. “You have the right to be as big of a jerk as you want to be. If there is a shred of truth [to the article or comment], you don’t have much of a chance of winning.”
What if negative press continues to dog your company and drags it down? In the worst-case scenario, Schultz’s advice is to shut it down and start a new company with a different name. He knows a builder who did just that after a political figure who lived in one of their neighborhoods sued them and kept the story in the news.
“The more they tried to legally combat it, the more the guy was wound up,” Schultz says. “When you get to a point where it doesn’t look like you’re going to get out of it, go into partnership with someone else or set up another company.”