Recently I was contacted by a self-storage facility that had a break-in, over 50 units were affected and the owner expressed concern over media coverage of this event and how it would effect their business. I realized I had never written an article for ISS about being ready to deal with the media in the event of this type of crisis. I have written an article that touches on dealing with the media (see ISS 12/01) called “Do You Have a Disaster Plan”.
A break-in is not a disaster, as much as it is an insurance and public relations nightmare. I suggest you have a set of procedures that you should implement so that you are ready in the event of a situation that attracts media attention, such as break-ins, fire or other disaster.
These procedures need to be in place in advance of a situation. If you try to use these procedures without having trained your staff and having some of these items at hand and ready to go, this plan will not work. You normally do not get much notice that the media wants to speak with you.
1. Brief everyone, and many of my clients include this statement in the employee handbook, that no employee is ever permitted to speak to the media. This, by the way, is true of even the “good” stories. The company should have one official spokesperson, be that the owner, the regional manager, the attorney, or someone else, but beyond that no one should speak to the media. If a conflicting answer is given by two different representatives, it will not be a good result. If you are having a Boy Scout yard sale at your property, the owner or the spokesperson should be present to also give a statement to the media. That is still not an appropriate time for an employee to speak to the media. This policy should be in the employee handbook and your operations manual.
2. If there is a crisis at the facility, prepare a written statement and distribute it in response to any request for an interview or in response to any information that a story is being broadcast or published about your facility. If you give a statement to the media in writing, your words cannot be twisted or taken out of context. This obviously should be a well-written document and, if possible, much of it should be “in the can” and ready to go to fill in the blanks in the event of a crisis. If you have someone that knows anything about public relations in your company, he/she should assist you in writing this document. The canned parts are the general facility information, how long you have been in business, and etc.
3. Remember to stick to the facts that you know for certain. You may think you know other “facts” about the crisis, you suspect someone was involved, or you heard something, or there is something you saw on the videotape, however, if you do not know these facts with 100% certainty, i.e. there has not been an arrest made, you do not comment on it. Let me give you an example of what we prepare when one of our client’s had a break-in. The statement provides that: We are aware that there was a break-in at the facility and property of occupants appears to have been taken. As a company policy we do not comment on active police investigations, so as not to interfere with them. The facility and the company are cooperating with the authorities in all ways possible. We are trying to reach our valuable occupants/tenants to notify them that their unit may have been involved. We will be making arrangements with the occupants/tenants to let them in on a one-by-one basis to allow them to assess any loss and to assist them with reporting the loss to the occupant’s insurance carrier. Our rental agreements provide the occupants carry insurance on their stored property), so we expect that insurance companies will allow our occupants to make a full recovery of any loss that they suffered. Fire statements are not all that different from break-in cases.
That is all you will know at the time the press is interviewing you after a break-in. Notice I did not report the number of units broken into, how the theft occurred, whether or not there was any breach of our security systems, what was stolen, whether or not we have a videotape of the incident, etc. These are not the facts we want in the press.
4. Do not think you can “help” the media. There is no such thing as helping a story and any attempt to help violates rules 1 through 3 above. Stick to the facts we have discussed above, even if you think you can help “guide” the story or you worry that things will be mischaracterized if you do not give out more information. Know that things will be mischaracterized anyway, do not risk adding any fuel to that fire.
5. Never let the media on the property. While you cannot stop media from videotaping, photographing, or broadcasting from across the street, or down the block, you can stop them from broadcasting, and photographing on the property. Never let them broadcast from your property particularly from in front of your sign. If the media does come onto the property, ask them nicely (you may be on tape) to leave once, tell them they are trespassing, if they do not leave at that point, ask the police for assistance. The media loves to push boundaries however, they are also familiar with their boundaries and generally will respect them if you handle this issue appropriately.
6. As a side-note – check your sign. If you have one of those message boards that changes either automatically or with letters that you slide on, and you are currently advertising on your board “safe, secure, clean units available”, you might want to change the message, without drawing too much attention to yourself, just so that your sign does not look extra foolish or become fodder for questions in any news story.
7. Do not feel threatened by any statement the media makes, as if you do not talk to the media they will claim they tried to reach you and you would not respond or had not comment. This would be inaccurate, you do have a comment, it is in writing and you have offered and provided it to any media member who asks for it.
8. As part of your press release you can express regret without admitting guilt or liability. You can always say: “we regret that this incident has happened or that someone has chosen to commit a crime against our occupant(s).” You do not want to admit guilt or admit that anything that happened was the result of any omission or failure on your part. For example, you would never want to say: “we have been having trouble with the gate for the last few weeks and it does not surprise me that someone finally took advantage of this.” Another thing you can always say in your “statement of regret” is that you know that your rental agreement required everyone to carry insurance on their stored property and you hope that everyone heeded your recommendation to buy tenant contents coverage or has adequate homeowners/renters insurance on their stored property so that no one suffers a financial loss from this crime.
9. Be prepared to circulate a letter to your occupants. There are really three components to this: (i) you do not want your occupants to hear about this crime or situation from the media, you want to get to them first to shape the story your way; (ii) do not admit to facts you do not know for certain, this goes back to Rules #2 & 3 above, these are the same types of facts that were in the press release; (iii) let the occupants know you have a plan, if you have closed access to the facility because so many units are exposed, let the occupants know how they can make arrangements to get into their unit with you to inspect their unit, relock their unit and that you will provide any assistance necessary in filing an insurance claim with their contents carrier. You can also make a helpful suggestion or two, such as, do not forget to bring a camera when you come down. All of this puts you in the driver’s seat, as it were, with your occupants so that you are perceived as organized, aware of the situation, and doing your best to help your occupants through this situation. This notice should also give a date certain by which if the occupant has not come down to inspect their unit that you (if there is anything left) will sell them a new lock, re-lock the unit, and make the keys available to them so that you can re-open the facility to normal business. Many facilities have agreements with temporary fence companies if there is a crime or fire to provide temporary fencing in order to fence off the area subject to the crime or fire so as not to close the facility as a whole for long.
You do want to try to make this letter as positive as you can. You would certainly state in your letter that these things happened, you also want to put into play immediately that what happened is not your fault; you are not responsible for the loss; that occupants are supposed to have insurance, but that you will help with the claim as much as you can. You can also feel free to offer a small incentive for the inconvenience for having to come down to go through the unit, without admitting guilt. I recommend a discount on next month’s rent for the trouble, maybe even a discount on a new lock. This is a goodwill gesture, not an admission of wrongdoing. You want to make sure that you are not doing so much that the good will is suddenly viewed as a settlement offer or compensation for a loss. If you are not responsible for this loss, there is certainly no reason for you to be compensating. We say think in terms of goodwill or retention, not settlement.
Finally, remember that news cycles are short. The average shelf life of a story is two weeks or less. While you may feel overwhelmed, stressed, or unfairly targeted by the media, the good news/bad news is that something worse will come along and take your story off the page or out of the news and though it seems bad for now, this too shall pass.
Obviously the hallmark of this article is to be prepared:
1. Make sure your employees and staff know their role when something like this happens, particularly that they cannot “help” by speaking to the media.
2. Have your documents and plan ready and in place so that you can beat the media to the punch and things will go much better for you than they did for the fellow with the 50 unit break-in at his facility, who was not prepared.
Jeffrey J. Greenberger is a Partner with the law firm of Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio and is licensed to practice in the states of Ohio and Kentucky. Mr. Greenberger’s practice focuses primarily on representing the owners and operators of commercial real estate, including self-storage owners and operators.
This column is for the purpose of providing general legal insight into the Self-Storage field and should not be substituted for the advice of your own attorney.
Jeffrey’s website, www.selfstoragelegal.com, contains Jeffrey’s legal opinions and insights into the self-storage industry, as well as an article archive.
Jeffrey is the legal counsel for several State Self-Storage Associations, as well as a regular presenter at Inside Self-Storage Trade Shows. You can send your questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics to Jeffrey J. Greenberger at firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail them to Jeffrey J. Greenberger, c/o Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP, 105 E. Fourth Street, Suite 400, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, or you can reach Mr. Greenberger at (513) 721-5151.