Regardless of what type of business you’re in, we bet you’ve heard of the five Ps before.
Unfortunately, this great example of alliteration leaves out the sixth and most important P that often has the greatest impact on real estate development: Public.
Whether you like it or not land use dictates that the ‘public’ has a say and what they say about your project will greatly impact your project’s success. Handling communications on your project in a manner that properly engages the public (e.g. adjacent property owners, environmental groups, community services, etc.) has never been more critical.
Want to know how well this works? Ask Hillary Clinton. In politics this is called the drip, drip, drip. . . Your urgency to fight ‘fires’ will lead to inconsistent responses, multiple spokespeople and more negative attention as mistakes in your message are made.
Changing technology and faster ways to communicate are not making more people aware of business transactions and pending developments than ever before, but they given them great power to be heard by large numbers of others.
We recommend that our clients spend time during their project planning to identify a communications strategy that helps ensure their projects aren’t subject to being taken over by things like social media activism.
First, let’s talk about 3 mistakes real estate companies often make when dealing with the public:
- They get too dependent on labeling their work with “Confidential” and “Proprietary.” The fear of information getting out about a project (impacting the price, terms, closing, etc.) is often the biggest reason why a company is ill prepared when the public becomes aware of their project. The results are even worse if the project generates any controversy. Regardless of what steps you think you’ve taken to keep your project secret, it won’t stay secret. Information inevitably gets out as your employees talk about work, your vendors brag about getting the bid or your project submits the first application seeking a public approval (e.g. zoning, permitting). Just remember, you’re only one tweet away from a crisis unless you’re prepared in advance.
- They respond to speculation/public comment on a case-by-case basis because they don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. Want to know how well this works? Ask Hillary Clinton. In politics this is called the drip, drip, drip. If your company lacks even a basic communications strategy or a plan for public comments (e.g. letters to the editor, open letters via Facebook, etc.), things will only get worse when you try to individually respond to each rumor, tweet or news inquiry. Avoid the desire to have a communications strategy that mirrors how you use email. Your urgency to fight ‘fires’ will lead to inconsistent responses, multiple spokespeople and more negative attention as mistakes in your message are made.
- They avoid diplomacy and prepare for war. More so in land use projects than any other endeavor, the tendency of companies is to prepare for combat with the public and the neighbors. However, in many cases the minor issues that cause major headaches can be worked out in advance of public processes by having a plan to meet with and listen to these public ‘fuses’ that can represent the start of your troubles. I’ve seen too many projects where a conversation about planting a few perimeter trees, building a fence or donating to the fire department could have saved the project from public critique and time consuming delays.
Now, here are four tips to help your next real estate project:
- Have a plan. Develop a proactive company communications plan or at least craft a project communications strategy that anticipates likely public objections and identifies who on the project is responsible for all public comments.
- Involve and train your employees. Make sure they clearly understand their responsibilities and who you have designated as your spokesperson. Moreover, don’t be afraid to ask what challenges they think you will encounter and see if they’ve heard or overhead the early reactions of adjacent landowners, the grocery store clerk or anyone else. As they say, listen with many ears and speak with one voice. Lastly, make sure that whoever is speaking on behalf of your company has some formal training (e.g. NAHB spokesperson training, etc.).
- Think less like a business and speak more like the girl/guy next door. A project’s neighbor doesn’t care about how your project will help the local economy, how affordable your housing will be or how what you’ve proposed is consistent with the comprehensive plan. To them, it’s much more personal. So, you need to brainstorm how someone outside your company will react to what you’re proposing. Then put together a strategy that identifies their likely concerns and effectively communicates on a level they will listen and engage. And whatever you do, don’t let a project engineer be the spokesperson – engineer speak is a foreign language when spoken in a public meeting concerning a project.
- Don’t be afraid to hire a professional. A professional can not only help you create an effective plan or train a spokesperson within your company, but they can also help you determine if certain projects or initiatives require more intense upfront planning, such as polling, focus groups or message development.