Friday, September 9, 2011

Putting Relationship Back in PR

Original Building Plan Courtesy of Highwoods

I recently was interviewed in The Kansas City Star about a public relations disaster on the venerable Country Club Plaza shopping district. For those of you not from Kansas City, "The Plaza" is an historic and iconic luxury open-air shopping district just south of the urban core. So what was this disaster you say? In short, Highwoods, the North Carolina-based owner of the center announced haphazardly last August that they would build a new office building for a local law firm on the north edge of the Plaza. They released a preliminary sketch and told of "only needing to demolish a small section of shops and an apartment building." They released it as a simple business development story. But almost overnight, a development project that they assumed would be met with open arms in these tough economic times turned into a media disaster that eventually forced them to withdraw the plan. It spawned lawsuits, public outcry and a very vocal, if not reasonable, "Save OUR Plaza" group. It also harmed the reputation of the shopping center and further distanced the ownership from their customers. they burned a great deal of good will and equity. Good will that would have come in handy as they dealt with recent teen riots, tenant snafus and the lingering perception of being too corporate.

Here is what I had to say, as well as the article from Kevin Collison in it's entirety. 
Protest Group Sign
Anyone involved with commercial real estate needs to be continually engaged with the community, said Jon Stephens, the former manager of the Power & Light District, who now runs his own marketing firm. 
Whether it should or not, the perception is, everybody should have a say, and a company that doesn't understand that is clearly doomed for problems, he said. 
Had Highwoods properly vetted its Polsinelli plan, Stephens said, it would have found that razing the Balcony Building was a nonstarter.  I believe if they came out with the final plan as opposed to the first one wouldn't have been received nearly as negatively. 
Kansas City Star: Lessons from the Balcony Building Mess
The lesson in all of this, is it public relations is not about announcing projects. It is rather about continual community engagement, message management and understanding the customer, the community and the perceptions of your district. It is as much about being engaged in the community, working with your company executives to get involved in the community as it is planning an announcement.

I am not trying to vilify Highwoods. They are by all indications a good steward of their properties and for the most part have improved The Plaza and maintained a nice assortment of high-quality tenants in very tough times. However, they are miserable in their public relations and seem to make the same mistakes time and again. This has harmed them in several ways including people not giving them credit for the great tenants they do bring in.

So, what should they do going forward?

  • Identify a few select employees locally that can serve as the day-to-day voice and face of their company.
  • Train the Highwoods execs to be on message but also allow them to show some personality. Less corporate, more neighbor.
  • Look to a communications professional to assist them in guiding how they engage the community. Create an ongoing plan for reputation management.
  • Engage daily on issues big and small. Build communication pathways.
  • Realize that the citizens of Kansas City hold the area as part of their "public trust" and speak in that way when discussing the Plaza. 
  • Create a program for the 150+ tenants to give them the tools to be pro-Plaza advocates. 
  • Identify your true neighborhood and customer brand advocates and offer them previews and perks.
  • Push more regional and national media that will build pride in the community that they have a jewel in their own backyard. 
  • When big changes are considered, look to a few trusted experts for advice before going public. 

This entire mess may not have been avoided even with all of the above. However; if they had initially launched (with the revised plan that saved the historic building), had already built some equity in the community, and had a known local exec speaking out in a way that people could relate to, they just might have avoided the fight and harm they have done to their reputation.

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