This past July, there was what the local news media in New York City reported as a volcano-like pipe explosion in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. Fear of asbestos and other toxins flooding the air, as well as disruptions to building systems, kept local businesses and homes shuttered for days.
"We heard people on TV saying they didn’t know what to do, that they had no contact with authorities and didn’t know when they would be able to return to the area," says Louis Trimboli, who co-chairs BOMA/New York’s Emergency Preparedness Committee. Avoiding this sort of confusion is something the committee is hard at work trying to prevent. "It’s part of crisis communication, making sure your tenants are safe and informed when disaster strikes," he adds.
It’s a responsibility that seems to be growing, according to Trimboli, who also is senior real estate manager for CBRE, overseeing the 600,000-square-foot 825 Third Avenue in Manhattan. "When I started out in this business," he notes, "we had garden-variety robberies or fires to deal with. Now, we have to concern ourselves with active shooters, suicide bombers, white powder in the mailroom and all sorts of things we never even thought of."
A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
A rock-solid communications program has to address all of these outside threats. It also has to take into account the modern nature of communications, which has changed since Trimboli first started his career. When access to social media is as near as the smartphone in one’s pocket, information—including false information—can travel quickly. "Awhile back," Trimboli recalls, "a train was pulling into a subway station on the Upper West Side and struck a tool a workman had left behind. It hit the third rail and created a huge pop and spark. The train came to a halt and people began running off the train.
"Within a few seconds, someone on the train began texting that it was a bomb," he continues. "The first responders hadn’t even gotten there yet." When people are frightened and don’t know what’s happening, they often assume the worst.
"If there’s a communication vacuum, it will be filled," says P. Marc Fischer, BOMA Fellow, CCIM, CPM, LEED Green Associate, RPA, president and CEO of InspiRE Commercial Real Estate Services in Baltimore. And, as the aforementioned story indicates, it won’t always be filled by the most reliable voices. "In the absence of clear information coming from an authoritative source, Twitter begins to fill the void with information that might—or might not—be factual," cautions Fischer.
So, what is a property manager—caught between easing the fears of a shaken tenancy and communicating proper, accurate information—to do? An emergency preparedness strategy is crucial, and communication figures heavily into that equation.
But, so much of communication hinges on the nature of the event, the pre-emergency training of tenants and the ability of a property manager to get out in front of social media. These are all variables at work that could threaten to disrupt any preset protocol. As a result, each event also must be met with a healthy dose of common sense and an ability to think on one’s feet. And, often, it isn’t so much what you say as what you don’t say.
FIRST RESPONDERS, LAST WORD
"The key is to get the right information to the right people at the right time," explains Fischer. He ought to know. In addition to his career in property management, Fischer is a veteran volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Howard County, Maryland—and he also is the public information officer (PIO) for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "The challenge for a property manager is that the information the tenants need will be different from what the public needs and different from what the owner needs. Ideally, you should have methods to communicate quickly, effectively and simultaneously with all of those parties," he says.
And then, you add in first responders. "As the property manager, you may be privy to information from the fire or police department, but you may not be able to release that information to anyone," notes Fischer, adding that first responders are the ultimate authority—even though tenants and even the press may turn to the building manager for answers.
It has been Fischer’s experience that most reporters are sincerely interested in getting out the right story. But, with limited air time and a quickly moving news cycle, a two-minute interview with a property manager may turn into a two-second sound bite that may or may not be the message that the property manager intended.
Thankfully, such communication is largely out of the hands of the property manager. "In all honesty, my hands are full in any crisis," says Trimboli. "I can’t also be in front of the building talking to the media. And, why would I want to when I have a great team at 200 Park [CBRE’s headquarters] who do media relations for a living?"
He advises that even a simple message, such as, "At this time, we are monitoring the situation and we will keep you apprised when we have further information," can go far to relieve the anxiety that is part and parcel of any building crisis.
In the case of the subway incident, Trimboli explains: "When the city posted the correct news, I took that whole message and sent it out to my tenants. In the end, you have to say something. But, you can’t speculate."
Like CBRE, Liberty Property Trust has an ironclad corporate communications protocol. "Liberty has a very clear policy that all media requests be directed to our corporate office," says Joseph M. Reilly, a general manager with Liberty Property Trust who manages four buildings in Washington, D.C., totaling to roughly 900,000 square feet. "A mistake some property managers make is to think they need to be their own emergency broadcasting service," he says. But, as Reilly points out, in a place like the nation’s capital, "there are so many great professional resources that already exist."
Reilly divides crises into two camps: municipal and building-specific. For the former, "I always recommend that my tenants subscribe to local services that are better equipped to push this information than I am." He cites AlertDC, an early-alert app managed by the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and the Emergency Management Agency, as well as a number of similar call-to-action sites run by the various business improvement districts (BIDs).
"I have three buildings in the Golden Triangle BID and one in the Downtown BID," Reilly explains. "The Golden Triangle, in particular, is amazing with the alerts they push out, and they do a great job updating all contact information. So, whenever there’s a gas leak or a Metro station is closed, I’m quick to know because I’m getting alerts—and I’m getting them as soon as my tenants do."
"It’s part of crisis communication, making sure your tenants are safe and informed when disaster strikes."
– Louis Trimboli, CBRE