Every landlord should be prepared to handle press or public inquiries about your rental properties or business. Without adequate preparation, unexpected inquiries, even seemingly benign ones, could cause problems for your business. Establish a policy for dealing with press or public questions, put it in writing, and make sure your employees follow it.
Even if you don't run a large outfit, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a call asking questions about something that concerns -- or may concern -- your property. If you're caught off guard and say the wrong thing, you could leave yourself open to liability, not to mention embarrassment. Worse, an employee who you wouldn't want speaking for your company might be the one to take the call and offer his two cents.
Here's how not being prepared to handle press or public inquiries can cause trouble:
Example 1: A reporter for a local newspaper calls Jim, a landlord, and asks his opinion about the fact that a home for people with emotional disabilities is slated to open across the street from his building in six months. Not knowing of this news and fearing the worst, Jim replies off-the-cuff, "It is? That's -- that's horrible!" Later, Jim thinks more about the development and regrets that he misspoke. But his quote is already in the newspaper and on the Internet, and he's worried his insensitive remark may hurt his business.
Example 2: An attorney representing the family of a child who was seriously injured after falling from a second-story apartment window in Alice's building visits the building to exchange some paperwork with Alice. On his way out, the attorney spots a maintenance employee and asks her questions about the window guards in each apartment. The employee remarks that several apartments had broken or missing window guards and she had warned Alice that "it's only a matter of time until a child gets hurt." The family's attorney uses these statements to help bolster the case against Alice.
To prevent problems, create a policy for dealing with press or public inquiries. Put your policy in writing and make sure all employees get a copy and familiarize themselves with it the day they begin working for you.
Your policy will vary depending on the size of your company, but here are some key points you should include:
Your press contact may be you or an employee. If it's an employee, choose someone who can speak confidently and knowledgeably to the press or public. Give the employee some guidelines about limitations on providing certain types of information and what types of questions to answer or not answer.
Identify your press contact in your policy, along with the person's e-mail address, office number, and cell phone number.
If the press or public inquires about a pending litigation matter, it's advisable to touch base with your attorney before offering any comments.
The policy should tell employees what to do if they get an inquiry from the press or public. First, point out in your policy that although the press or public would likely contact your office by phone, they could initiate contact by other means, such as visiting your property in person. If a member of the press or the public shows up at your door, employees should escort the visitor to the press contact or provide the contact's phone number.
Members of the press or public may be very hungry for information. Even after an employee directs them to your press contact, inquirers may still try to get information. Caution your employees not to give in to pressures to provide information. Remind employees that even confirming basic information about the company could prove problematic. Employees may mistakenly believe certain information is for public dissemination when it's not, or their opinions could slip in as they proceed with the conversation.
Tell your employees to be polite but firm and not be afraid to leave a persistent inquirer dissatisfied or even peeved. If pressed for more information, employees should simply repeat the direction to get in touch with your company's press contact. Provide employees with suggested phrases to use such as "Jane Smith can help you with all your questions," or "As I said, Jane Smith is the best person to talk to regarding this matter."
To learn about more ways landlords can adopt careful and consistent business practices, get Every Landlord's Property Protection Guide: 10 Ways to Cut Your Risk Now , by attorney Ron Leshnower (Nolo).