New Orleans—When a massive fire all but destroyed a Bozzuto Group community in Conshohocken, Pa., what did the company do? They sprang into action and managed the crisis. Of course, to begin with, they had a crisis management plan in place.
Lauren McDonald, director of corporate communications at Bozzuto Group, discussed the company’s crisis plan and how they implemented it at a session titled ‘Emergency Communications: Best Practices on How to Plan for and Manage a Disaster,’ held at the National Apartment Association’s (NAA) Conference in New Orleans today.
The fire at Riverwalk Apartments destroyed two of the four buildings at this property. Three hundred residents were permanently displaced and all residents were temporarily displaced. “The key was that all our employees were trained in emergency procedures, and so they immediately responded by evacuating the residents,” said McDonald. “Next, our crisis team agreed upon critical messaging needs for each audience (existing and displaced residents, media, employees.) Then, we used email blasts, text messages, our corporate site as well as the property site and blogs to send out messages. Personal calls and meetings were also part of reaching out.”
Despite being prepared, McDonald believes they learned a number of lessons through this tragedy. She shared some of them:
- Red cross and SPCA were extremely crucial
- Ownership paid for five nights at a hotel (ownership required renters insurance)
- Determine a location to convene and or from which to stage communications if situation prevents personnel from getting to or using office
- Agree upon a company spokesperson
- Consider crafting a pre-approved emergency message
- Ensure Web team is ready to activate online crisis hub
- Make certain social networking sites are established and ready to use
- Collect emails and cell phones
- Establish solid news/web/blog sites
- Keep media offsite
- Centralize communications. This way, onsite people can focus on their job instead of fielding press requests
McDonald explained that multifamily owners/managers should educate employees about dealing with the media—which is very important when something like a fire takes place. “Tell onsite staff to focus on their jobs and refer all media inquiries to the PR department. Tell them that off-the-Record is a fantasy, so they should not do it and that they should not say ‘no comment’ because it could be interpreted as guilty as charged,” said McDonald.
She said, If pressed, encourage site staff to provide one of the following statements:
“The accident is still under investigation. As soon as we have reliable information, we will make it available.”
“We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of individuals and to assist the rescue and investigating personnel.”
“I am not yet aware of the specifics with respect to the situation and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”
Conor Lee, founder of Residentc Emergency Communications and the other presenter at the session, stressed on new trends that multifamily owners and managers should keep in mind while formulating their crisis management plans.
There are fewer landlines and more mobiles today. 43 percent of renters today have only mobile phones. This is an increase of 4 percent from last year compared with 14 percent for homeowners. Other big trends are SMS use, which doubled last year and the use of social networks, which everyone knows is skyrocketing. “This means that text messages and social networks are essential in communicating with residents,” said Lee.
He added that the most important question to ask is: are you ready for a crisis? And after that, a manager/owner must review and update the crisis plan.
Some other key things to keep in mind:
- Scenario specific planning and responses
- Chain of command and specific contacts
- Training staff is essential
- Victim management
- Don’t forget about social media
- Brainstorm scenarios and responses
- Practice scenarios
Lee also stressed on the importance of collecting residents’ information and keeping it up-to-date. He also recommended the use of mass communication solutions such as newsletters. While choosing a communications tool, multifamily managers and owners should keep their needs in mind. The tool should:
- Be accessible on and off site,
- Be easy to monitor and secure,
- Reach both staff and residents; and
- Work with property management software.