Nearly every day, reporters are assigned to take anational story about the housing market and localize it. They’re faced with finding knowledgeable, local sources to give their perspective on how the national news applies to a local coverage area. If they’re smart, they’ll include area builders in their round of calls for comments. If the builders are smart, they’ll take the call and share their thoughts and insights—without blaming the media for the downturn. “Breaking news is a great opportunity to get your name out there,” says Peter Olesker, a partner in Chicago-based Taylor Johnson & Olesker, a public relations firm that focuses on real estate. “If you’re willing to comment when there’s negative news, reporters are more willing to come back to you when there’s good news. If your response is always, ‘No comment,’ when there’s bad news, don’t expect them to come cover your new development.”
And don’t think that a reporter will drop a story if you refuse an interview or choose not to comment.
“The reality is journalists can get the information they need somehow,” Olesker says. “It’s better to get it from you than from your competitors or an unnamed source.”
Carl Larsen, former editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Sunday Home section and a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, says that more often than not, reporters hit a brick wall when they call builders for comments—or they get a call back days after their deadline.
“This defensive attitude results in these companies missing the boat when it comes to being mentioned in stories,” Larsen says. “With the advent of online coverage by major news organizations, builders need to be ready to respond to questions quickly, and not with the reply, ‘We’ll get back to you tomorrow.’ Savvy building companies have established with local media who their point people are when the need for a comment or interview arises.”
Cheryl O’Connor, vice president of sales and marketing for the Northern California division of Costa Mesa, Calif.–based Warmington Homes, is always ready to provide reporters with accurate data on her local market, which includes the San Francisco Bay Area.
It’s important, she says, “to offset negative press with positive press. When [a reporter] says, ‘National statistics say home values will fall,’ be prepared with your facts. For example, the Bay Area has had positive job growth and appreciation in home values.”
O’Connor also sees her media efforts as a way to educate consumers and reporters about the home building business. Recently, she was one of three builders interviewed about challenges and opportunities facing Bay Area builders and home buyers on a local radio call-in show. “A lot of people don’t understand the business,” she says. “That became obvious when we did the KGO interview. People called in and wanted to ask about mortgages and foreclosures.”
The best way to get positive local press coverage is to build relationships with the reporters who cover the industry and position yourself as the person to call first when they’re working on real estate stories. Philip Corley, vice president of marketing for Pathway Communities in Peachtree City, Ga., tells reporters that if he doesn’t have an answer to a question, he’ll help them find a source even if it doesn’t benefit his community.
That lets reporters know that he cares about helping them do the best job possible. It also makes reporters more receptive when he has positive news to share. For instance, Corley has gotten good response to a story he pitched on a new $4 million amenities center in one of his communities. “Most developers are pulling back—they’re not finishing things,” he says. “We wanted to be proactive and not leave any doubts for customers about whether the amenity will be here, so we put it in at the beginning. That’s a positive story we’re telling.”
Don’t limit your media contacts to just the business reporters, either. Connect with the government reporters who cover the communities where you build and the lifestyle writers. Design stories are where Larsen says builders really have a chance to shine—and often don’t think to trumpet their innovations.
“Where builders really fall down, I believe, is in presenting new design trends in their homes,” he says. “On a Sunday outing a few years back at a model home, I found a new serpentine party sink featured on a kitchen island. We did a feature on this product for our design magazine, naming the community where it could be found. Many readers were intrigued about this product and wanted more information.”