Negative headlines impact current and potential residents, management, business partners, and staff. Ward off public relations problems before it's too late.
By Pamela Babcock ©2019 Community Associations Institute
HARDLY A WEEK PASSES without headline-grabbing coverage of community associations: “Denver neighborhood bans children from drawing chalk art on sidewalk." “Veteran says he's forced to sell home after HOA fines him for hanging U.S. flag in flower pot." “HOA threatens resident with fine after car leaves unusual shape in snow."
Just this past March, for instance, The Wall Street Journal featured a story about a Kansas homeowner doing battle with his community association. The headline? “The $1 Million HOA Blowup: It Started With the Misplaced Flower Pots."
To be sure, there are uninformed boards, bad actors, and poorly managed communities, yet independent research conducted by the Foundation for Community Association Research several times over the past 14 years, most recently in 2018, shows most community association residents like where they live. The majority of associations are well-run and consist of hard-working volunteers and professional managers.
Unfortunately, the negative headlines can impact current and potential residents, management, business partners, and staff.
“Media relations can be very delicate and can have a serious impact on the health of a community," says Ellen Hirsch de Haan, an attorney with Wetherington Hamilton in Tampa, Fla., and a fellow in CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers.
WORK TO IMPROVE YOUR ASSOCIATION'S REPUTATION INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE COMMUNITY BY PROMOTING GOOD NEWS AND POSITIVE INITIATIVES.
THERE ARE STEPS all community associations can take to prevent negative stories from reaching a level that generates media interest.
You can ward off many possible public relations problems at the beginning by clearly communicating with residents, particularly when there are assessment increases or rule changes. But if you find yourself in the media spotlight, the best way to be prepared for reporters and camera crews is to identify a spokesperson and consider developing a media relations plan. Respond in a timely fashion to media requests. And work to improve your association's reputation inside and outside the community by promoting good news and positive initiatives.
“You can't stop a crisis from happening, but what you can be is the promoter of the good stuff that would not get out otherwise," says Emily Schmidt, a freelance journalist who is speaking at the CAI Annual Conference & Exposition in May and is co-founder of speaki2i, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based communications consulting firm.
Common situations that can lead to intense and often controversial coverage can include special assessments, rules enforcement, and compliance surrounding things like flags, political yard signs during election season, playhouses, little free libraries, dog poop DNA testing, and more. You also may have to deal with alleged fraud or embezzlement. Police matters, such as drug dealing, new residents who are sexual predators, a dementia sufferer wandering the parking lot, and everything from standoffs to suicides, also can prompt media calls.
Lindsay S. Smith, an attorney with Winzenburg, Leff, Purvis & Payne in Littleton, Colo., says some of the most vitriolic clashes are often between perceived First Amendment rights and the association's governance, particularly since “states have different levels of free speech protections for owners in community associations," Smith says.
Today, with the explosion of social media, it doesn't take long for a negative message to get out or a crisis to happen. A disgruntled owner could shoot a cellphone video of a heated meeting or exchange and post it on Facebook, where it could suddenly “go viral" and take on a life of its own. Your response plan and messaging matters now more than ever.
One of the biggest examples of bad press about community associations came in 2016, when The Kansas City Star published a special report titled “HOAs from Hell." The package included a story about a Houston great-grandmother who was forbidden from painting her garage cordovan; a disabled Boca Raton, Fla., resident who reportedly took his life after a battle over an emotional support dog; and a Tennessee family whose young daughter almost strangled herself on a window blinds cord because the family wasn't allowed to hang curtains in front-facing windows.
Although the story included comments from Dawn Bauman, CAI's senior vice president of government affairs, explaining that issues often stem from misunderstandings about governing documents, CAI responded with a letter to the editor the following day saying the publication's “choice to attack the community association housing model with anecdotal horror stories is a disturbing attempt to instill fear and unrest in your readers."
One way to improve the likelihood of positive press is having a plan that spells out what to do when a staff member or manager is contacted by a reporter and who should be the community association's designated spokesperson. This can be a board member, someone on the management team, or a member of the association who has experience with the press, says de Haan, a CAI past president.
If they're inexperienced, consider professional media relations training so the person will be calm and confident rather than defensive in front of a TV camera. The spokesperson should realize that even with the best intentions, statements can be taken out of context and positions misrepresented. For example, de Haan once told a reporter with the Sun-Sentinel in Florida that “condominium living is not for everyone," but when the story ran, the quote read: “Condominiums would be great if they didn't have any people in them."
Consider having stock responses for common queries, such as, “Unfortunately, we are unable to discuss the finances of an individual homeowner or the specifics of a pending lawsuit," Smith adds. Also important: Having a fact sheet available to hand out with basic information about your community, such as when it was built, how many homes it has, its amenities, social media accounts, and contact information of your media spokesperson.
In general, barking “no comment" is not a good idea and is “never going to come across well," Schmidt says. Instead, consider buying time by saying, “We are looking into this, and we are trying to find out more. We will let you know as soon as we do." (And then be sure to follow up.)
If there's a flap over a flag, for example, you might not be able to comment on specifics of the current situation but could tell the reporter, “Here's a copy of our policy that says what is allowed, and we are looking into this. Point to the known while you try to figure out the unknown," Schmidt says.
Lastly, develop working relationships with any journalist likely to repeatedly cover your association, such as a local community or business reporter. Help them understand your community and associations in general. Get to know them “so you are not starting from square one in the event of bad news," Schmidt adds.
One way to counter critics and stack the odds in favor of positive press is to improve your reputation inside and outside the community by being transparent about association operations with residents and by promoting good news and laudable initiatives.
In large part, an association can develop a positive reputation when its residents speak highly about it outside the community. The board should have a communications policy that allows residents to submit questions, comments, concerns, and complaints in writing; the community should respond in a timely manner.
“One of the fastest roads to discontent is if owners feel as if they are not being heard," de Haan says.
Positive photographs and articles on the community website, newsletter, Facebook page, or other social media sites showing “contented residents and fun events" never hurt. Residents often share social media sites and newsletters with family and friends outside of the community, de Haan says.
Regular and frequent communication can help increase transparency and decrease gossip and misstatements. “Happy homeowners and reasonable governance will improve the association's reputation more than any calculated PR campaign," Smith says.
IN LARGE PART, AN ASSOCIATION CAN DEVELOP A POSITIVE REPUTATION WHEN ITS RESIDENTS SPEAK HIGHLY ABOUT IT OUTSIDE THE COMMUNITY.
CRAFTING A RESPONSE
If you're confronted with a major issue, you may want to seek help from your attorney in crafting a response or refer requests directly to him or her.
In the late 1990s, de Haan faced a barrage of media when a couple's adult daughter and her elderly dog came to stay with them at a 55-and-over condominium community in Pembroke Pines, Fla., after a nasty divorce. The community didn't allow pets, but the situation was supposed to be temporary. Unfortunately, de Haan says the dog “was old and crotchety" and before long, bit a couple of people who tried to pet it.
When the association finally asked the owners to remove the dog, the woman's father called every newspaper and radio and television station he could reach, “lamenting the terrible association that was making him get rid of his daughter's poor old dog," de Haan recalls. De Haan gave interviews to several local newspapers as well as The New York Times. The story also was featured on “ABC World News Tonight" and “A Current Affair."
De Haan stressed the association's empathy for the daughter's predicament with her divorce but focused on the board's obligation to protect the community and its residents and the need to enforce the governing documents to maintain a safe community. She also spoke about the unique challenges of living in a multifamily residential community. Journalists accurately represented the association's point of view, de Haan says, and the dog was removed.
Peter Kristian, CMCA, LSM, PCAM, general manager of Hilton Head Plantation Property Owners Association in South Carolina and a CAI past president, says he knows why community associations get a bad rap. “We're Big Brother," he says. “We're the 500-pound gorilla, and we're perceived as having all the power and something to say about what people can and cannot do with what, in most cases, is a person's most valuable asset—their home."
Kristian wasn't on the job long before he had his first media blowup. The issue was over deer, which had overrun the community and caused as many as 70 car accidents the year before. Management wanted to cull the animals. “There was a segment of residents who didn't want to do anything to harm 'Bambi,' and it got rather heated," Kristian recalls.
He worked hard to be accessible to media inquiries. “I was up front with them, and I thought that gave me better and more balanced coverage," Kristian says. “A lot of my colleagues just don't return media calls, but I'm of the opinion that you talk to them. You may not have absolutely good news, but you have to talk to them."
In 2011, when an 8-foot alligator was discovered trapped in a storm drain. Kristian hired a critter management company and told guards at the community's gates to not let the media in because he wanted to avoid gawkers. But a resident phoned in a pass for media and news quickly spread.
“I had a three-ring circus. There were hundreds of people watching this crew using hooks, snares, and chicken wings to try to lure this alligator out," Kristian recalls. The alligator was eventually freed. The Island Packet, the local newspaper, ran a photo of Kristian holding the gator's tail.
Pamela Babcock is a writer and editor in the New York City area.
WHEN KATIE ANDERSON, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, founded Aperion Management Group, AAMC, in Bend, Ore., a decade ago, she thought avoiding the media was smart. But Aperion had a rocky start when one of its first clients, Awbrey Butte Owners' Association, made national and international news over a clothesline battle.
“We took the stance of saying nothing and had sort of this canned response that our attorney had developed," Anderson recalls. The communities' position was that its CC&Rs do not prohibit clothes drying outside but simply required owners to screen them from neighbors' view, much like trash containers. “The media coverage never offered this distinction," Anderson laments.
Before long, TV crews from “The Colbert Report," “Good Morning America," and elsewhere were on the story. Mayhem ensued. Anderson and her staff were getting death threats. In general, reporters who got residents on camera were able to “edit or twist the soundbite" into whatever they wanted—to appear in support of the homeowner or to make fun of her, Anderson says. Either way, the association didn't come off well.
In hindsight, Anderson wishes Aperion had found a way to tell the association's side of the story “a little bit better" because the written response was rarely published or even paraphrased in coverage. “They just chalked it up to a no comment," Anderson says. She says now she knows why the industry gets such a bad rap and has changed her approach to dealing with the media.
“I think as an industry we have not figured out or haven't placed enough value on how we're marketing both our communities and our companies and talking about the good things we are doing," Anderson says.
Aperion Management now works hard to promote positive news and events on its Facebook page and website for the 50 communities it manages. When a large windstorm swept through the area in January, Aperion's marketing manager posted a story about staff members helping with cleanup. KTVZ, the area's NBC-affiliate TV station, ran a story lauding the work.
Today, Anderson says Aperion has “a great relationship" with the local media and doesn't run from requests, even when the topic may not be positive. In January 2019, after the media learned of a cougar sighting at one of its properties, Anderson fielded the call and a maintenance worker went on camera with the Central Oregon Daily to discuss safety protocols. It was a big issue since there have been cougar sightings in the region and a hiker was killed in the Mt. Hood National Forest last fall.
In the end, Anderson says management company owners should help managers and homeowner clients focus on spreading word about positive news rather than just reacting to potential problems.
“It's not just staying in the trenches doing the day-today," Anderson says. “You need to have a long-term vision. We can't really complain about the fact that the media only ever say bad things about our industry if we don't focus on getting the good stuff in front of them." —P.B.
GREENBELT HOMES INC. (GHI) in Greenbelt, Md., developed a media and social media policy in 2015 after intense media coverage when a resident claimed he was subjected to secondhand smoke from a neighboring townhouse. A lawsuit, Schuman v. Greenbelt Homes, ensued.
Sheri Swaim, CMCA, AMS, on-site manager for Barkan Management in Tysons Corner, Va., helped develop the policy. She says one problem was that, occasionally, a board member would respond to a question or comment on the community listserv or Facebook page, and their statement would be considered official when it wasn't.
Here are some highlights from the policy:
■ The general manager and board president are authorized to make statements to the media and via social media; but the GM or board president “may also designate other person(s) to represent GHI."
■ People elected to GHI office (board of directors, audit and nominations and elections committees) and appointed committee members should refrain from making comments to traditional media, such as newspapers, television, or radio regarding GHI while in office.
■ In their official capacity, elected or appointed officials may post on social media only if referencing existing GHI documents, approved GHI policy, GHI's website or published meeting minutes. When possible, posts should include links to the information or policy on the community's website.
■ Elected or appointed officials can post personal opinions on GHI-related topics on social media only if they indicate their comments are personal and don't reflect official GHI policy or standing. Better yet, they should consider setting up a separate account for personal social media postings and note on those accounts that their comments are personal “and do not represent GHI policy in any way." —P.B.
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