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Media Smarts

Talking to the media
Tired of hearing all the negative press about the real estate market? Don’t turn your back on the media; consider them potential business partners who can effectively get your messages out to the public. Here’s how.

Ann DeFries would take the words back if she could. DeFries didn’t even say much, which turned out to be the problem.
Last year, the sales manager for Balistreri Realty Inc. in Boca Raton was also president of the Realtor® Association of Greater Fort Lauderdale, putting her directly in the line of questioning from the media. Reporters called DeFries two or three times per week. Most times, the topics concerned the market’s particularly high price appreciation or the record-setting sales activities. In this particular instance, though, a newspaper reporter inquired about a sensitive internal Association issue.

DeFries’ response was essentially, “No comment.”

“I said, ‘At this time, I’m not able to talk with you about that.’ Then, [the reporter] came back with, ‘Does that mean you’re not making a comment?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ So, the reporter started delving into things on his own and came up with some things that were not correct and were printed. I don’t think I would do that again.”

Lesson learned.

Working with the media takes just that—work. If you’re willing to put in the time to offer historical comparative market statistics to reporters, you may find more balanced stories. Reporters need perspective and you can position yourself as the media’s go-to professional. Here are some tips.
Choose Your Words Carefully
To a reporter, “No comment” might well mean you know the answer but don’t want to provide it, contends Tom Morgan, a veteran company spokesperson and communications professor at the University of Central Florida, who also provides media training for the Florida Association of Realtors®. Instead of saying “No comment,” Morgan suggests a different approach, such as saying, “I’m not really in the loop on that” or “I just can’t think of an answer to that right now. Could we maybe come back to that?”

Indeed, dealing with the media can be a tricky proposition. As a result, knowing the ground rules can spell the difference between insightful, productive communication and regret. Even better, you can become a person the media rely on for information.

Now more settled in the role of media spokesperson, DeFries, for one, looks forward to media attention. Instead of fearing confrontation, she has learned how to become a media resource, with her confidence coming from thorough preparation. “Be prepared,” she advises. “You have to know what you’re talking about; you can’t wing it. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, tell them to give you a little time, and you’ll find out.”

In addition, she is an advocate of restraint. While trying to be as helpful to the media as possible, she chooses words carefully. “I just answer the questions that are asked,” she says. “We have a tendency to want to tell everything that we know or to show our expertise. All of a sudden, if you do that, you’re going to find yourself in the [negative] headlines.”

A Friend Indeed
Clearly, the media can be your friend, says Morgan: “There’s no need to fear the media. A very, very small percentage of reporters are either hostile or the reporter is so drastically uninformed about the business that there’s no real communication taking place and what comes out can be problematic.”

And, good relationships with reporters can help you explain to them the nuances of the market so they can report more accurately using historical information and your expertise in market ups and downs.

Although Morgan teaches caution and stresses the need for good judgment, he believes Realtors should be aggressive. “Look for opportunities to call reporters and get to know them. You can be the person they call,” he says.

“The best role that you can get into with a reporter is to become a resource for that reporter. Reporters are generalists. They don’t [always] know subject matter. They need people they can trust, and they need people who are available very quickly when a story breaks.”

Jerry Jackson, senior business reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, whose primary areas include residential real estate, agrees. “We hear from folks with some regularity but not as often as most of us would like,” he says. “Today, with the ability to communicate via e-mail, it’s easier than ever. We’re always trying to expand our source list.”

Jackson doesn’t discriminate about his contacts, either. He notes that even industry novices can offer substance and acknowledges the potential benefits participation offers to real estate professionals who do. “It’s a way to get your name out there,” he says.

Growing up, Budge Huskey certainly saw the virtues of name recognition. The current president and COO of Sarasota-based Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate Inc. is the son of E. Everette Huskey, perhaps Central Florida’s most quoted builder/developer during the 1980s and 1990s. The son, in turn, witnessed the name Huskey Realty rise to prominence.

“[Sales associates] need to look at the press as they would any customers that they have,” says Budge Huskey. “This is a relationship business, and these are relationships that have to be cultivated over time. I don’t think you can simply be passive and expect the press to reach out to you.

“The exposure you receive through good relationships with the media is priceless. As far as I’m concerned, they carry far more value than anything you can pay for on your own.”

Becoming a Media Resource
So, how do you become a valuable resource?

For starters, accessibility is paramount. “We’re moving pretty fast on the fly, and we rely on folks we can get to, or who can get to us,” Jackson says. Aside from relying on e-mail, he seeks sales associates’ and brokers’ cell phone numbers.
“I always try to call [reporters] back as soon as possible—maybe not always immediately because we’re all busy—but [I at] least [call back] that [same] day,” says Judy Schomaker, president of Suncoast International Realty, with offices in Sarasota, Bradenton and Nokomis.

Notably, Schomaker’s introduction to the media wasn’t pleasant. The day she was installed as president of the Sarasota Association of Realtors® in 2005, the Association was hit with a $5 million class-action antitrust suit. Additionally, Sarasota was recording the highest appreciation in Florida, making her market especially newsworthy and putting her in media demand.

By virtue of her background, though, Schomaker was able to successfully negotiate potential hazards. Heavily involved in international real estate, she is vice chair of FAR’s International Committee, as well as the president’s liaison to Spain for the National Association of Realtors®.

Although the circumstances were different when she was head of the Sarasota Association, dealing with the media hasn’t changed, and she now uses her media savvy to win attention for the brokerage she started in January 2006. “When it comes down to it, they’re just doing their job, and we are trying to do ours. Work with them,” she says. “As long as you’re sharing information, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Write It Out
A prime way to share that information and, ultimately, become a media resource is through press releases.

According to Morgan, the purpose of the press release is to highlight what is interesting and newsy about your company. The trick? Don’t make it boring, but don’t make it too flowery, either. Be concise and use bullet points to get your message across.

“Don’t send fluff,” he says. “You send fluff, and it will hit the trash can in a heartbeat. Then, when your name [comes up later], they won’t pay any attention to you because you’re sending fluff. Don’t waste their time, such as with frivolous press releases that contain no news or information.”

So, what isn’t fluff? News about the market, a new technology, donations to charity or anything that makes you or your brokerage stand out.

Other suggestions: Make photos available, include contacts and be accessible to follow-up inquiries. Also, make the distinction between “news” and “information” releases. “If you’re sending a release about, for example, new board members of a local Association, call it an ‘information’ release, not a press release,” Morgan continues. “You’re telling the reporter that you know the difference and you value their time.”

Similarly, show that you have a good grasp of grammar. Do whatever it takes to make sure the press release is well written and engaging. If you’re not able to do it yourself, hire or trade services with somebody who can.

The same applies to interviews—practice makes perfection, which spells competence in the media’s eyes. “A lot of it is confidence in being able to speak and think, and to develop answers off the top of the head,” comments Jackson. “Even being able to elaborate the basics impresses reporters.”

Give Them What They Need
Another method to catch the media’s attention is to give them what they need. Read the local and the regional newspapers’ real estate sections. Stay current on the issues covered by the national press. This way, you can anticipate what the local press might be seeking.

Also, understand the various types of news coverage. The Orlando Sentinel, like many other local newspapers, contains daily breaking news stories, articles about trends and issues, and cover stories for its business sections. Reporters are also often looking for background industry information. “Do some research about the media opportunities,” Jackson says, also noting that newspapers typically publish editorial calendars with topics outlined and lists of staff e-mail addresses for simplified access.

If time and resources are available, you can take your research a step further by tracking the types of stories each reporter writes, and whether each prefers to receive press releases by mail, fax or e-mail. Maintain those contacts and compile them in a media database.

And, of course, coverage and the need for quotes can come from places other than daily newspapers. Most cities have local and regional magazines, along with smaller-circulation weekly newspapers. Those publications represent opportunities as well.

Huskey offers a twist on that theme. He remembers his father as continually writing letters to editors and reporters and coming up with ideas for stories. Many times the elder’s intent, however, was to give the readers—via the reporters—what he thought they needed. “Keep perspective when positioning with the media,” says Huskey. “To get an effective message out, keep in mind what the consumers need to know. Then give that to the media.”

Yes, you too can become a media resource. Just ask DeFries, whose baptism by fire brought new understanding. “Educate yourself about the media. Then educate the media about real estate. Then work to develop relationships. It can pay off.”

Michael Candelaria is an Orlando-based freelance writer.