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When Disaster Strikes, Are Property Managers Prepared for the Media Blitz?

With increased media attention on crisis events, which can be anything from natural disasters to shopping-mall snipers, the drive to finger someone responsible for the resulting chaos is growing stronger. And because many crises involve compromised property, it’s the property manager that’s becoming more vulnerable to blame.

may15_midyearDuring the Property Management Forum at the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo on Thursday, property managers spoke of situations that can invite scrutiny and offered tips for how to control the message during such high-stress times. Chris Mellen, CPM, vice president of property management for The Simon Companies in Boston, recalled a recent domestic violence incident in one of his properties that resulted in the victim’s death. He also contended with Boston’s most recent hellacious winter, which brought 106 inches of snow to the city over a six-week period and caused widespread property damage. Such instances can put property managers in a position to explain and defend actions they’ve taken to ensure the safety  of their buildings.

“When an event happens, the media, the public, and our clients and tenants are looking for someone to hang it on,” Mellen said. “We’re never going to be perfect. We’re never going to be able to head everything off at the pass. But if we don’t do the best we can, we’re making ourselves a target for the blame.”

Randy Woodbury, CPM, president of Woodbury Corporation in Salt Lake City, said the first thing people will want to know in the aftermath is if there was a crisis plan in place at a property to deal with emergencies. It’s incumbent upon property managers, he said, to do a risk audit of their properties and know how to address potential danger. That way, when you’re questioned about your properties’ safety plan, you can outline measures you’ve taken.

“Do walkarounds at your properties and see where you’re vulnerable,” Woodbury said. Assess for things like fire hazards, elevator malfunctions, all possible places where attackers could gain access to the property, and vulnerabilities to weather conditions. Then develop a network of people you would need to call on in case of emergency, such as staffers, engineers, electricians, disaster cleanup professionals, and authorities, and consult with them on devising crisis mitigation plans for your properties. Develop strong relationships with them so you stay top-of-mind.

“When it all hits the fan, who are they going to respond to first?” said Woodbury, who spoke of successfully carrying out an evacuation plan years ago at a shopping mall his company managed when it was threatened by an active shooter. “When you need somebody’s help, are you going to be the property they come to when five other properties are calling for help?”

Mellen said property managers should also develop a plan to communicate with tenants during emergencies. His company makes a point of collecting e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers from as many new tenants as possible so the company can send them alerts.

“If there’s been a mugging in the building, we’ll do an e-blast to all the tenants who have given us their contact info,” he says. “That kind of communication is becoming more and more effective as people go mobile. We also use social media so we can tweet and post alerts to Facebook.”

If you’ve taken all of these measures, you’ll be able to use them to respond to inquiries into incidents at your properties. And you shouldn’t shy from talking to the media in such circumstances. “The media will report on an incident whether you’ve given your two cents or not,” Woodbury said. “You may as well talk to them to make sure the story is correct.”

One thing that’s important to avoid, however, is embellishing the level of security at your properties. That could come back to bite you. “I’ve seen people put up signs saying their properties are under surveillance when they’re really not,” Woodbury said. “Don’t imply you’re providing a level of security that you’re not because then you really open yourself up to scrutiny.”

Make sure there’s nothing written in lease agreements that could lead tenants to believe more security measures are in place than there are, Mellen added. “And don’t agree to apply a level of security that you’re not equipped to apply.”

Graham Wood

Graham Wood is a senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at gwood@realtors.org.

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