Public Relations
Lien Sales

Everyone loves to hate the media. Our appetites for sensationalism have fueled an industry that is unable to draw the line between information and entertainment. The dangers of our supercharged media become crystal clear when it is your facility that becomes the subject of news coverage. A storage facility operator's worst nightmare - something has gone wrong onsite and reporters have arrived to let you know. They want a statement for the news and you don't even know what it's about yet. While there is no way to ensure that your facility will be incident free, a little preparation beforehand can prevent a public relations nightmare. The important thing is to prepare your facility staff in advance for potential crisis reporting and to set up an in-house system to gather and disseminate information. In disaster prone California, it's a question of when, and not if, something could go wrong at your site.

Who's On First-Selecting a Spokesperson

Not everyone is comfortable talking to the press. Even experienced speakers can freeze up when blind-sided by a microphone and the team from the eleven o'clock news. Your facility should select someone to act as a spokesperson before there is a crisis. Your criteria for selection should reflect common sense: the candidate should be someone who feels comfortable in public speaking; he or she should have a pleasant and composed speaking demeanor; the individual should be familiar with your facility operation; and preferably should be affiliated with the facility in a management or upper-management level position. Often the owner or CEO makes the perfect candidate, but if this person is tense or anxious under pressure, look further. Scheduling is also a consideration, your spokesperson should be someone who is generally available on short notice.

Once you've selected the primary spokesperson, line up an alternate to serve as a backup. Sometimes the very emergency which requires a spokesperson makes your first selection unavailable. Once something newsworthy happens onsite, try to channel media contacts through these designated individuals.

However, just because you have a designated spokesperson doesn't mean a reporter will contact only them. In fact, some members of the press will push to talk to the local manager or counter person, even after being referred to a spokesperson, specifically because they think they'll get more out of an unprepared interview. After an irate tenant went to the press following a faulty lien sale, a Bay Area facility manager with no public relations training was interviewed by a local paper. The event resulted in two negative articles in the local paper, despite the facilities best efforts to recover the goods. For this reason it's a good idea to consider all facility staff as potential public relations prospects. Everyone should receive training on facility policy when dealing with the press, even if just on how to politely decline an interview. Also remember that onsite public relations doesn't end with the press, all public contacts should be pleasant, courteous and informative.

What's On Second-Contents Under Pressure

Once you have determined who will do the talking for your facility, you must set up a system so that person will know what to say. This will require anticipating potential problems, creating a set of public relations files for your facility and setting up an internal crisis information team. In a small operation your onsite manager may be able to coordinate the information in a crisis. In a larger operation your team may need to be more diverse. Those who are familiar with handling the relevant information, and know how to get to it, should be included in the team.

To be prepared to respond to emergencies your facility should create a list of potential or likely emergency situations which could occur. In California, this should include everything from the occasional theft from a unit, through hazardous materials contamination, earthquake, firestorm, plague or flood.Anything that could happen to damage your facility, or your tenants' goods, could end up as a news event.

Once you have developed your crisis list, for each potential event identify and record your facility's features or policies which minimize the likelihood of damage, injury or claims. For example, for theft you could list the facility's physical security features, alarm systems and operations procedures which help to limit the chance that you will be targeted by thieves. This process of cataloging your preparedness for each potential crisis will help you to develop informative scripts which can be used in shaping public perception following an incident. You can create a communications plan for every conceivable crisis situation.

Each scenario can then be used in role playing to prepare your spokesperson or staff members for talking with the media. The process should also help you to identify and correct any problem areas onsite, or in your operations, before an emergency. Your public relations file should contain information for each of the scenarios you develop, so that your spokesperson can quickly pull the file and get up to speed following an emergency or media contact. It should also contain emergency contact numbers appropriate to each set of facts. A wise public relations move that dovetails with creating your readiness file is getting to know local emergency response personnel. Your management should be friendly and cooperative with the cop on the beat and the firefighters at the local stationhouse. Since these people are often quoted in the media, you'll get a better spin from their statements if they see your operation as an ally against crime, fire, toxic emergency or whatever other hazard may arise. After observing what could have been a small toxic spill onsite, a Northern California facility manager called the local firehouse for advice. Fire personnel came down to investigate, identified the substance and advised clean-up. There was no need for further environmental reporting. It probably hadn't hurt that the manager had permitted fire personnel to use the facility for an off-hours drill. There was no resulting news story.

Your crisis team will be responsible for quickly collecting all relevant information about the incident and getting it to the spokesperson. They may also coordinate with emergency personnel. The crisis team will also be in contact with onsite staff, the owner and the spokesperson to ensure that a unified and coherent approach is taken on behalf of your facility. Nothing looks worse in the public eye than conflicting or contradictory messages.

Just the Facts-Setting the Spin

An effective media message is clear and concise. Learn to use the soundbite to your advantage by being ready with short statements that positively address the heart of the issue. Decide on an objective for your message - what do you want the public to know about this situation? Use the information in your files and on this incident to draft statements consistent with your objective. For example, if your facility has been hit by fire, even before the cause is identified, you can:

Report on your facility's fire alarm and fire suppression equipment.

Discuss how your preparation and cooperation with fire officials is helping to minimize the damage to tenants' goods.

Inform tenants that they will be contacted with instructions as soon as fire officials permit entry.

Good News is Good Press

Contact with the media shouldn't always mean bad news. Through press releases you can use the media to bring positive attention to your facility. Consider offering free space for a limited time to disaster victims. A press release will get your offer on the air. You can offer free space to charity organizations for emergency programs, donation drop-off points, newspaper or recycling drives. Sponsor a little league team. Offer your facility as a watering station for a local marathon. Anything that you can do to be a good neighbor in your community can also result in good public relations. When your facility is involved in community activities, take photos and record the event. Particularly in smaller towns, local papers are often eager to promote local charity events and your facility involvement along with it. Don't be shy about contacting the local media when you have good news to offer.

Good Press is Good Business

In the ratings rush to exploit scandal our news media are often guilty of oversimplification. There may only be room in their reporting for black or white, good guys or bad guys. As a large and visible industry, self-service storage is frequently the target of smear reporting. Storage facilities are characterized as havens of criminal activity, as firetraps or as fountains of abandoned toxic materials. These portrayals are not accurate, but they make the kind of news that sells soap. The storage industry has a responsibility to be vigilant in monitoring media coverage of the storage business. Should your facility become a news subject use your best efforts to educate the press and the public. A little preparation before a crisis can make a huge difference in how your business is presented. Bad media coverage will have a negative impact on the bottom line. Being prepared to present the best impression makes good business sense.

Copyright Alta V. Walters 1995