By Robyn Marano
Long known as the focal point in many communities, the shopping center continues to be a pivotal lifestyle destination for neighborhoods. Center owners and property management teams must work collaboratively and proactively in order to be prepared for emergencies or crisis that may arise. Shopping centers need to be at the forefront of the media news cycles with consistent and responsible messaging to reassure their customers, merchants and employees that the center is handling the situation and it is a safe environment for all who visit there.
Crisis Communication Manuals
Crisis communication manuals are vital tools in advising center spokespersons on how to respond to the media in a thoughtful, calm and informative manner that will reflect positively on the center regardless of the crisis.
Crisis communication protocols are prudent given the vast array of eventualities that centers need to anticipate. For example, Madison Marquette-managed center Marketfair was impacted by Hurricane Sandy, but managed to stay partially open, allowing area shoppers and visitors to access a facility that offered electricity, clean restrooms, well-lit and comfortable seating areas and Wi-Fi when much of the surrounding community was adversely affected. Marketfair reached out to its customer base via a range of on-site announcements and social media, a tool that has become increasingly important to centers across the country.
While centers today have top-notch security personnel in place, there are many communities where crime has, unfortunately, been on the rise. It is vital for shopping centers to be equipped with communication skills that articulate information to the public as well as with local law enforcement when an emergency situation arises. Because crime can occur at any time, it is prudent for centers to have a clearly delineated chain of command for who can be a designated spokesperson, who can return calls to media and who will be the face of the center in a crisis.
Most centers in the United States encourage their leadership staff to work closely with local media. For the most part, this allows centers to enjoy strong relationships with press covering their properties, while at the same time nurturing these relationships in case of crisis. However, dealing with media when the news is good can be significantly different than speaking with media when an emergency occurs. Thus, it is useful for any center staff that may work with press to undergo media training. This process helps strengthen the management’s comfort level in speaking with media.
Recent studies have also shown centers that maintain close relationships with local law enforcement and first responders emerge from crises with less damage than centers that don’t. Inviting local police and fire crews to tour center premises, study entrance and exit points, and familiarize themselves with center layouts vastly improves their abilities to locate and disable assailants expeditiously.
While freedom of expression is a critical pillar of our nation, it is also an opportunity for activists to take on almost any cause, including ones that may embroil a shopping center. Holiday displays, ecologic deficiencies, funding (or lack thereof) for center-based community events can all bring out picketers and protesters. Training center management to deal with such groups with courtesy and firmness while upholding private property rights and public safety is vital for ensuring and maintaining a calm and safe environment for customers.
Social media allows centers to quickly disseminate information directly to the general public and key audiences. It can be incorporated into the communication strategy during crises when a center needs to provide the public with timely updates and wants to demonstrate its response to and handling of a situation. However, there are a few basic “dos” and “don’ts” when considering social media posts during crises:
- Coordinate with property and corporate communications teams to ensure social media messaging aligns with overall corporate or business communications plan.
- Identify any social media policies held by mall ownership and ensure that there is full compliance with such policies and procedures.
- Use social media channels to keep customers and the community updated on the center’s status during crises involving closures, damage, traffic or parking reconfigurations.
- Turn off pre-scheduled or auto posts as they could relay incorrect information or be seen as insensitive during the crisis.
- Delete any recent posts that may be insensitive in light of the crisis situation.
- Post any information without ensuring its absolute accuracy.
- Post reactively! While center management is encouraged to respond quickly during normal operations, response during a crisis situation should be carefully considered.
- Use religious or politically oriented language.
Here is a checklist of reminders to have on hand in the event of an emergency:
Quick Reference Guide
- Establish a clear chain of command of authorized center spokespersons.
- Media-train all center spokespeople.
- Maintain working relationships with media, local law enforcement and emergency responders.
- Prepare statements and ensure they can be adapted quickly and effectively.
- Identify satellite locations where, if necessary, center staff and corporate executives can meet with press and emergency responders.
- Keep copies of all crisis-related materials outside the office for easy access.
- In the event of a major crisis, make certain that center staff notifies and consults with corporate leadership immediately.
- Be ready to update public and media audiences via all communication channels, including social media.
— Robyn Marano is the Vice President of Marketing for Madison Marquette Retail Services (MMRS) and can be reached at [email protected]. MMRS is a premier national real estate development, leasing and management firm specializing in infill, mixed-use, community and specialty retail properties.