Student Housing Business

JUL-AUG 2018

Student Housing Business is the voice of the student housing industry.

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SMARTER OPERATIONS July/August 2018 100 Message Under Pressure Crisis PR experts fight for a company's brand before, during and after inevitable crises. By Lynn Peisner U Unfortunate events at a student housing com- munity can far too easily — and quickly — become public relations nightmares. Most crises happen simply because the population at a student apartment is unaccustomed to handling freedom and independence. That's why some student housing PR experts advise their clients to create programming that can decrease the odds of a behavior-related crisis. "I think there's a big opportunity for own- ers and operators to keep their eyes on that," says Jamie Matusek, president of Austin-based Catalyst. That opportu- nity, Matusek says, is to foster strong residence life pro- gramming that specifically targets prevention of dan- gerous activities. Creating a culture of awareness and trust onsite can go a long way to head any potential problems off at the pass. The reality is, however, that no matter how proactive your company may be, issues with drugs, alcohol, sexual assault, burglary and suicide are unfor- tunately not uncommon. In fact, with this age demographic, they are unavoidable. "There's no way you can predict what's going to come up when you're talking about students," says Mark Evans, public relations manager of the Threshold/Carve marketing firm, which has offices in Texas and Canada. "Every crisis is different. There are still things that happen that surprise me. So my mantra has become, 'expect the unexpected.'" As young people themselves, most com- munity staff can be caught by surprise when something goes wrong, especially if they have forged strong bonds with their tenants, as many operators encourage them to do. "Crises are emotional for leasing teams," Matusek says. "They know these students. They're like family at a lot of properties." That's where a public relations crisis response plan becomes necessary. While expecting the unexpected, it's wise to have a plan in place for some of the most common, and worse-case scenario events, before they happen. Following a traumatic event, the goal is a swift and deliberate hand-off of power to put those plans in place. Missteps are too easy and can be irretrievably costly. "A brand is all you have," says Melissa DiGianfilippo, co- owner and presi- dent of public rela- tions at Phoenix- based Serendipit. "The cost to repair a brand is so expen- sive. Your residents won't want to live at your property; the university won't want to partner with you; parents won't feel comfortable sending their kids to you; and your inves- tors will be very annoyed. If a crisis is handled incorrectly, you may as well knock down the building and start from scratch." A Simple Plan The first step to a good crisis PR plan, says Matusek, is simply to have one. "I think a lot of times, property developers and operators get focused, with good inten- tion, on developing, acquiring or setting up the leasing team," she says. "Many times it can be an afterthought." She says most student hous- ing veterans are prepared to handle crisis PR, but some investors coming into the sector from other areas of real estate aren't always familiar with unique student-related PR needs. Peak Campus partners with a public rela- tions firm for crisis PR scenarios. This partner has developed tools and step-by-step proce- dures for the property team. "Having the tools in place is crucial and provides all team mem- bers with a course of action immediately," says Maria Filippone, director of marketing for Peak Campus. "Handling PR challenges is all about timing and communication." While it's impossible to prepare for every- thing that will happen on your property, every PR rep agreed that they have multiple plans ready to go tailored to each potential crisis. Then, it's a matter of who's in charge. Establishing a crisis response team means determining who is on the team and what their roles are. DiGianfilippo says a company should name the key decision-makers who are tasked with getting on a group call, text or email for approvals, 24-7, if something happens. "That's the part that can go wrong the fast- est — when we don't have approval from all parties," she says. "We try to keep that team as small as possible. Owners may think they need their investors on that team, but we advise keeping it to three to five people. It usually consists of an attorney and key management staff." Media is a major reason for the need for quick responses to criminal incidents or even to problems caused by weather. Consequences can be high if a company lingers too long before addressing the problem. Evans teaches crisis communications as part of a business communications course at Texas State University. "I tell my students: Human beings have a craving for information. If we're not getting information from the people we're supposed to be, then we're going to go to other sources. You need the property manager to be that source." Knowing what to say and how to say it is important to maintaining cred- ibility. Evans says messaging needs to be authorita- tive, timely, consis- tent with all other messaging coming from the company and contain only facts. However, if a police investigation is part of the situ- ation, Evans cau- tions against shar- ing too many facts too soon. "We have to understand where our role begins and ends," he says. "If law enforcement is involved, you have to be extremely particu- lar about what you say. We could jeopardize an investigation by releasing information too soon." For some of its clients, Catalyst, along with PR partner Bloom Communications, attends annual trainings and coaches staff on how to handle a crisis. At a recent training for Campus Advantage, Catalyst involved property man- agers in a skit to demo in an engaging way JAMIE MATUSEK President Catalyst MARK EVANS Public Relations Manager Threshold/Carve MELISSA DIGIANFILIPPO Co-Owner and President of Public Relations Serendipit

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