June 11, 2014
Real Estate Weekly by Linda O’Flanagan

It’s a broker’s dream. After weeks of preparation for a major open house launch party, potential buyers show up in droves, drinking wine, socializing and ultimately making bids.

So many buyers appear that three sales agents are needed on hand for quality service. A few buyers make verbal offers, sparking a bidding war and making developer and broker very, very happy.

Later that night you get a call. Apparently, during the open house, a few customers seemed to have misplaced their cell phones.

No problem. It happens.  But two women also lost their purses and a man reports his wallet missing. One of the expensive shower heads was removed. A piece of rented artwork is gone. Reporters from Real Estate Weekly call your office about an “Open House Heist” that is making the rounds on the real estate rumor mill.

Now, it’s a broker’s nightmare. What do you do?

“In a case like this, communicate directly with the victimized customers, help where possible and demonstrate you are on the case,” said Harry Zlokower, president of Zlokower Company Public Relations, who has represented broker groups at Douglas Elliman and the former Grubb & Ellis.

“As soon as possible write a clear, factual media statement, check the statement with your lawyer, and make it the basis for your response to media questions.”

For large companies, employee communication polices, rooted in crisis communications plans, may be spelled out for new hires during training. But in the case of real estate brokerages, salespeople and brokers are not employees, but independent contractors.

“Direct brokers, managers and employees to report any concern to designated executives — problems in a physical plant, service interruptions, violations, thefts, disputes, resident protests — anything that does not appear right or is not in keeping with the standards and well-being of your organization,” said Zlokower.

“Further instruct employees and contractors that they should in no circumstances talk to press or post company information on social media unless authorized do so by management.”

One of the newest threats in the digital age is online news, where a story, once viral, can be duplicated, re-published and referenced by a multitude of bloggers and journalists.

Whether done internally or via an advisory PR firm, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle where citizens have as much access to the public sphere as the journalists of yesteryear, industry professionals say in the end, it is better to be prepared for the unthinkable.

“Depending on the size of your organization, the most efficient and possibly cost effective preparation is to have a public relations firm or in-house professional available 24/7,” said Zlokower.

“Man-made or natural disasters are frequently unpredictable and the reaction time is short. Conflicts between owner and tenant or developer and resident might brew slower, but they are bound to happen at some point.

“And then there’s that weekend call from a reporter about a crime, accusation, or violation that needs an almost immediate response or no response at all,” said Zlokower.

“Having a well thought-out crisis communications plan and, if at all possible, professionals to assure its proper implementation are crucial to keeping a real estate enterprise on course and to avoid further unnecessary complications to unwanted and unexpected events.”