Getting the Message

Can your community association reach members quickly with accurate information? Is an information exchange loop in place between the board and the community? Does the board know whet association members think about the job it’s doing?

A proactive member relations program can meet all of these communications challenges. Being proactive means being ready. It means knowing what you will do and how you will do it, before you need to do it. It means having the staff, equipment, and programs in place before you need them. It means communicating with members, not to them.

Reactive communications keep an association on the defensive and lead to actions based on crisis instead of fact, preparation, and planning.

A member communications program will nor succeed without support from the board of directors. It takes wisdom, courage. and vision to build a program that will pay off for future boards, but a proactive communications program is every bit as important as maintenance, security. and recreation.

“A carefully planned communications program gives a board the ability to respond promptly to resident questions and complaints,” said Karen McKay, president of CoMac Associates, a marketing and public relations agency in Chicago, Illinois. “This prevents rumor and misinformation from skewing debate and complicating decision making.” According to McKay, this program includes regular print and, for larger associations with the resources, broadcast communications. Spokespersons for the association should be clearly identified to residents.

Forming a Team

A communications team is essential. A paid professional, expert volunteers, and strong staff support can develop a proactive program that will keep information flowing to and from the community. Key ingredients of the team include:

Communications professional. If the association can’t afford a full-time staff member, consider part-time or freelance services. Advertise in the association newsletter–a member who is a public relations practitioner may be willing to consult for a nominal fee.

Support staff and equipment. A computer with desktop publishing capability and a person who can produce printed materials and work with vendors saves money and allows you to make changes without incurring design and typesetting charges.

Communications committee. Volunteers bring the dynamic of the community to their work. They help staff stay focused on the audience. Build a small committee of diverse talent. A writer, photographer/videographer, graphic designer (preferably with computer skills), and volunteers with marketing, public relations, or presentation skills make a well-rounded committee.

The Information Loop

Community associations can communicate with members in a variety of different ways. These include:

Newspapers and newsletters. These are a staple for most associations and the foundation of a good program (see “12 Tips for Improving Your Newsletter,” July/August 1995). If you want to limit costs, take a tip from Lake Carroll Property Owners Association of Lake Carroll, Illinois. It has an agreement with the local newspaper to publish and mail the association’s newspaper to 3,100 members at no cost to the association.

“We maintain complete editorial rights, and review the layout before the paper is printed,” says association general manager, Jim Blackburn. The publisher sells the advertising and keeps the revenue. “The association has no expense other than time in reviewing the paper, and the publisher gets a ready market for its advertisers.”

Special issues. Boost the power of your newsletter by adding “special focus” issues throughout the year. For example, before an assessment increase is put to a vote, inform members and build awareness with a special issue devoted to the budget process and what members get for their assessments. If architectural guidelines are revised, publish them. Explain why they were adopted and how they’ll affect the community.

Updates and flyers. The Montgomery Village Foundation, Montgomery Village, Maryland, sends a one-page flyer with its quarterly assessment bills to show how the board is working for its 34,000 members. Called MVF–Working for You, it lists anything positive the association has done during the previous quarter.

“We use bullets to list the activities and explain their effect on owners. It answers the question, ‘What does this mean to me?”‘ said T. Peter Kristian, PCAM, executive vice president of the association. “The board likes it because successes can be published right away. And our members are reminded several times a year that the board is serving their interests.”

Steve Gross, editor for the Ocean Pines Association in Berlin, Maryland, publishes a flyer every two weeks called Pine Lines that communicates board activities to members.

“The simple format of Pine Lines helps us get news to the community fast, and it supports our monthly newspaper,” said Gross. Gross also uses Pine Lines to poll community opinion. When the association’s board found itself debating with the environmental control committee over small satellite antennae, Gross used Pine Lines to inform the community and ask for feedback. Based on the results, the board voted to allow a variance for satellite dishes up to 20 inches in diameter.

Message boards. Put a message board in every clubhouse and lobby and at all exits from the community. Post messages early in the day, so people leaving in the morning will get the news.

Town meetings. These are a must for timely two-way communication between the board and members. Depending on the issue, invite the media. Use town meetings to introduce candidates at election time. Tap owner opinion on controversial issues or rally members around a shared issue. Concern for the area’s water management program prompted The Landings Association on Skidaway Island, Georgia, to schedule a public hearing with the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

“The purpose was to let residents hear the proposed water management program and to make the commission aware of our program to reduce dependency on deepwater wells,” said General Manager, Paul Sousa, PCAM. “The commission was impressed enough with our residents’ concern and knowledge to prevent stricter controls.”

Ed Miller, general manager of the Meadows Community Association in Sarasota, Florida, uses town meetings to reach a large community of 44 condominium associations, seven homeowners associations, a nursing facility, a retirement development, and a country club. Representatives from each group are appointed to an assembly which meets 10 times a year to review the budget, select board candidates, and exchange information. The Assembly provides a “forum for the community, which the board uses as an open town meeting,” said Miller. “It’s a great mechanism to disseminate news and get feedback to the Meadows Association board.”

Personal appearances. This is one of the most effective ways to build confidence in an association board and its management. Go to the people–church, social, and service clubs abound in many communities. Or bring the people to you. Pat McKenna, general manager of The Landings Club, hosts a monthly “GM Breakfast” for club members.

“It’s nice way for members to meet the managers who operate their club,” McKenna said. Each meeting focuses on an area of club operations. McKenna welcomes members and presents the topic. then introduces the operations manager for that area and opens the floor for questions and comments. Managers look forward to the breakfasts because they learn how members feel about the job they’re doing. “That feedback makes a big difference,” McKenna said. “The club has integrated a number of ideas from the meetings into its operations, and the board is in touch with members and responsive to their needs.”

Phone trees. These are a great way to get out the vote, conduct opinion polls, or explain complex issues. With a phone tree, a group of volunteers call a list of homeowners. To increase effectiveness, maintain a standing committee of trained telephone volunteers. Train the committee on phone techniques. Write scripts so that all volunteers deliver the same message. Phone volunteers are frequently asked difficult and unexpected questions–plan a pre-calling meeting to review the scripts and practice responses.

Welcome packets. These supply important information and say, “We’re glad you’re here.” Packets can be attractive and inexpensive–as simple as a colorful folder with the association’s name. Include bylaws, architectural guidelines, covenants, articles of incorporation, maps, association services, common property information, club schedules, telephone directory, emergency information, and a list of administration phone extensions. Add a personal touch. Train a staff member to explain the information in the packet to new members.

If You Have the Funds

In addition to these proven internal communications techniques, consider adding one or more of the following for a message delivery system that will enhance your efforts tremendously.

Cable publicity. Most cable companies have a public service channel that runs local advertising and public service announcements. Call the local cable company and learn how to publicize community messages. Tape town meetings for members who can’t attend. Air the tape on the local cable channel and have a duplicate available for members. The equipment can be rented and a volunteer can tape the meeting. Publicize the tapes’ availability.

Voice mail. Telephone voice-mail systems can disseminate fast, accurate information to members, even after the association office is closed. The system’s information boxes can be scripted to suit almost any need. During board elections, it can include candidate profiles, voting procedures, and deadlines. During a weather emergency, it can focus on evacuation routes, shelter sites, and emergency numbers. It can also include information on association procedures and policies.

A word of caution. These systems are great tools, but for the uninitiated, they take some time to understand. Be patient–know what you want and shop carefully.

Information forums. These are smaller and less formal than town meetings. Schedule as many as possible if a project is controversial or requires a vote. Publicize them well. Have two or three directors and project committee members available to answer questions and discuss the issue. Keep notes, summarize the conversations, and develop a final report.

The goal of a communications program is to build respect and trust among members and the association. Rumors can’t root in soil rich in fact. Stay informed about everything that goes on in the community. Use the techniques outlined here to write an action plan for each project that is reasonable for the association to implement.

Diane Coppage is communications manager for The Landings Association in Savannah, Georgia

Common Ground, November/December 1995

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