Facing the press: Strategies to manage media coverage of community associations

Frequent headline-grabbing coverage of community associations can cast a bad light on communities that are well-run and consist of hard-working volunteers and professional managers. With social media, it doesn’t take long for a negative message to get out, or a crisis to happen.

Common situations that can lead to intense and often controversial coverage include special assessments and rules enforcement, especially surrounding things like flags, playhouses, and pets. Criminal activity, such as alleged fraud or embezzlement, also can prompt media calls.

You can ward off many possible public relations problems at the beginning by clearly communicating with residents, but if your community finds itself in the media spotlight, here are some steps you can take to address reporters and camera crews:

Identify a spokesperson. This can be a board member, someone on the management team, or a member of the association who has experience with the press. If they’re inexperienced, consider professional media relations training so they will be calm and confident rather than defensive. If you’re confronted with a major issue, you may want to seek help from your attorney in crafting a response or refer requests directly to him or her.

Prepare a media plan. Have a plan that spells out what to do when a staff member or manager is contacted by a reporter. Consider having stock responses for common queries. Make a fact sheet to hand out with basic information about your community, such as when it was built, how many homes it has, its amenities, social media accounts, and contact information of your media spokesperson.

Be accessible. Respond in a timely fashion to media requests. Avoid answering questions with “no comment.” Develop working relationships with any journalist likely to repeatedly cover your association, such as a local community or business reporter. Help them understand your community and associations in general.

Maintain transparency. The board should have a communications policy that allows residents to submit questions, comments, concerns, and complaints in writing. The board should respond to them in a timely manner. Regular and frequent communication can help decrease gossip and misstatements.

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Truth in fiction: 9 books that add an HOA twist to your summer reading list

“You can’t make this stuff up. Somebody should write a book about it.”

It’s a frequent refrain for community association board members, managers, and business partners, especially for those who have several years of experience and have collected numerous laughable, outrageous, and, sometimes, cringe-worthy stories.

Somebody, actually, somebodies, have written books set within community associations or that tackle many of the issues (neighbors, rules, pets, and more) you’re sure to recognize.

The beach is calling. The pool is inviting. The backyard is enticing. Take a seat, grab a book, and start reading.

A Man Called Ove (2014). By Fredrik Backman

Ove has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” When a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale that will shake one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations. A New York Times bestseller and soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks.

A River to My People (2019). By Jason Green

Follow a collection of short stories about life in the suburbs and the funny and infuriating antics, behaviors, rules, and regulations of community life. There are droll tales of walking dogs, trying to get grass to grow, dealing with speeding by teenagers and parents, errant parking, the work and the pleasure of backyard swimming pools, homeowners association election politics, and so much more.

Cats, Chaos, and Condo Board Wars (2019). By Nikki LeClair

When elections for condo board president come around, Hilary Brandt lets her friends and neighbors convince her to run against the by-the-letter, long-sitting president—also known as Hilary’s number one personal critic. As the election campaigns launch, a romance-that-almost-was reappears, a coworker tries to steal a client, and her opponent starts to fight dirty. Is the chaos just too much?

Condominium (2014). By John D. MacDonald

Welcome to Florida’s Golden Sands, the dream condominium complex built on a weak foundation and a thousand dirty secrets. It’s the home of shortcuts, crackdowns, breakups, oversights, and payoffs. Add it all up, and the new coastline community doesn’t stand a chance against the ever-present specter of disaster: the dreaded hurricane.

High-Rise (2012). By J.G. Ballard

When a class war erupts inside a luxurious apartment block, modern elevators become violent battlegrounds and cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on “enemy” floors. Human society slips into a violent reverse as once-peaceful residents, driven by primal urges, recreate a world ruled by the laws of the jungle. Developed into a feature film, released in 2016, starring Tom Hiddleston.

Little Fires Everywhere (2017). By Celeste Ng

In Shaker Heights, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules. When an enigmatic artist and single mother arrives with her teenaged daughter and rents a house from the Richardsons, the status quo in this carefully ordered community is threatened. Named book of the year by The Washington Post, NPR, Southern Living, and more. Soon to be a Hulu limited series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

The Condo Kids: The Case of The Disappearing Pool Monster (2019). By Jackie Burns

Excitement is just an elevator ride away for brothers Noah and Michael, who are best friends with all the other Condo Kids in their building. This tight-knit group of pals just want to have fun but always wind up in hilarious, sticky situations. The latest adventure finds the Condo Kids on the hunt for a mysterious underwater monster rumored to be living in the condo pool. This is the third book in a series for young readers.

The Pinball Lawyer (2019). By Marvin Nodiff

Condo lawyer Joshua Fyler is in a fight for his life. His clients are disrupted by weaponized drones, greedy investors, and corrupt lawmakers. Fyler ricochets from one crisis to the next as he tries to salvage his reputation. Written by a founding member of CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers and a retired community association attorney from St. Louis, Nodiff captures all the foibles of community association living in his sixth humorous and engaging novel.

White Elephant (2019). By Julie Langsdorf

A gaudy, newly constructed behemoth of a home soars over the neighborhood of Willard Park. When owner Nick Cox cuts down Allison and Ted Millers’ precious red maple—in an effort to make his unsightly property more appealing to buyers—their once serene town becomes a battleground. Newcomers and longtime residents alike begin to clash in conflicting pursuits of the American Dream, with trees mysteriously uprooted, fires set, fingers pointed, and lines drawn.

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Sign up here: 12 ways to recruit and retain volunteers

Volunteers play a critical role in making community associations vibrant and attractive places to live. Finding, motivating, directing, and maintaining volunteers’ interest, however, are challenging tasks.

Assigning association responsibilities to the right people, asking them to accomplish realistic tasks, and making them glad they did add to the challenge. Communities can perfect their recruitment and retainment strategies with the following tips and tricks.

Ask early. Start recruiting volunteers early. Tap into the excitement and energy people bring to their new home. Ask them to volunteer and get involved to channel that enthusiasm in a way that benefits the entire community.

Ask often. Many people will wait to be asked and, if no one asks, they may never volunteer. The best way to recruit is to personally invite people to get involved, rather than posting a notice in the newsletter, an email, or on social media.

Play matchmaker. Ask residents about their talents, interests, likes, and dislikes; then successfully match them with relevant volunteer roles.

Don’t overwhelm. Don’t overload volunteers, especially new residents, with too much work. Keep roles modest, and make sure they understand the monthly time commitment.

Respect their time. Start and end meetings on time, and always share the agenda a few days before a meeting so volunteers can prepare for the discussion.

Respect their ideas. When a volunteer shares an idea or recommendation, he or she is owed an acknowledgement, what the ultimate decision was, and why. If the idea isn’t appropriate, tactfully point out why without making it personal or attacking the idea.

Provide guidance. Have experienced committee members mentor and nurture newer members and provide them with the skills they need to take on greater responsibilities.

Educate. Providing relevant educational opportunities also is helpful and a wise investment in the community’s future.

Make it fun and rewarding. Build in time to socialize before and after a meeting, but don’t let it interfere with the purpose of gathering. Fun events build a sense of teamwork.

Make accommodations. People are more likely to volunteer if small accommodations are made to make it convenient. Be flexible and open to changes if it means greater volunteer participation. Consider asking your residents when they’d be most likely to attend meetings.

Build your bench. With more active, team-minded volunteers, your community can accomplish much more. It also will be in a better position when volunteers move or step down from their roles.

Thank gratuitously. Recognize volunteers for their efforts. Ways to express appreciation could include an inexpensive plaque or certificate of appreciation; public acknowledgement at the annual meeting; an expression of thanks on the association webpage; or a listing of volunteers’ names in the community newsletter or on social media. Keep in mind that board members typically are prohibited from accepting gifts.

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Pool patrol: Communities struggling to fill summer lifeguard positions

Warm summer days typically mean there are plenty of opportunities for adults and children to swim and splash in community pools. However, a shortage of lifeguards nationwide is limiting the hours, or even days, that pools are open.

Reston Association in Reston, Va., for example, has had several weekend closures at its 15 swimming pools since Memorial Day due to the inability to fill lifeguard positions. Laura Kowalski, the association’s director of recreation and environmental education, says that as of June 7, fewer than 160 applications for lifeguard positions had been received, compared to 180 applicants in 2018.

Kowalski has been working on a recruitment strategy since November that includes approaching sports leagues, schools, and universities in Fairfax County and neighboring Loudoun County to reach the target demographic of 15- to 20-year-old high school and college students. She also organized two job fairs in late May and mid-June. Reston’s goal is to obtain at least 200 applications. Starting pay is $10.50 per hour; those who serve as a pool manager earn a bit more.

Despite the trouble with hiring lifeguards, Reston Association has not considered implementing a ‘swim-at-your-own-risk’ policy at its pools. “That gets into safety and supervision issues. We have a lot of kids who come to the pool without any supervision,” Kowalski stresses.

Lifeguard shortages around the country are being attributed to several factors, including students taking on summer internships related to their academic programs. “For decades, we have been relying on the youth to fill these positions, and we just don’t have the numbers seeking employment as we have in the past,” says BJ Fisher, director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association.

Kowalski believes the lifeguard shortage in the Northern Virginia region is related to Fairfax County Public Schools’ schedule, which shortens the amount of time students can work in the summer, as well as teens having other jobs or competing activities.

“They go back to school earlier now than they have in the past, and so we’re looking at a shortened season for them to do all of the things they need to do: family vacations, internships, and just having some down time over the summer,” she adds.

Fisher suggests reaching out to older adults and retirees to address the lifeguard shortage. Some communities have looked into hiring foreign lifeguards, but there could be visa issues with that approach.

For Reston Association, recruitment efforts to fill the lifeguard positions will continue. Kowalski says the association is refining its onboarding process to get lifeguards started faster, including covering the fees to get them certified. She notes, however, that covering certification fees would have a financial impact on the association. “Our members would have to absorb it, or we would have to find some other non-assessment revenue for about $20,000.”

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Red, white, and blue: Tips for displaying the Stars and Stripes

The Star-Spangled Banner. Old Glory. The red, white, and blue. No matter how Americans refer to the U.S. flag, everyone has the right to fly it. Flag Day, held annually on June 14 since 1916, should serve as a good reminder for how all should properly and proudly display the Stars and Stripes.

Thanks to the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act, enacted in 2006, residents in community associations have the right to fly the flag even if there are rules and restrictions that prevent it from being displayed. CAI believes, however, that associations should be able to determine the appropriate size, placement, and installation of the flag and flagpoles.

CAI encourages associations to follow the guidelines for flying Old Glory in the U.S. Flag Code, some of which includes:

  • Display the flag in public from sunrise to sunset. It can be displayed at night if it is illuminated during darkness.
  • Do not display the flag in inclement weather, unless it is an all-weather flag.
  • The flag can fly on all days, especially on national holidays, other days that may be proclaimed by the president, and dates of admission of states into the union.
  • Do not position the flag upside down. This represents a signal of distress in moments of extreme danger to life or property.
  • Do not let the flag touch anything beneath it, including the ground, floor, water, or other objects.
  • No part of the flag should have any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.

Need more information about rules and regulations regarding flags, banners, and emblems? Read Everyday Governance: The Community Association’s Guide to Flags, Rentals, Holiday Decorations, Hoops, and Other Headaches, available from CAI Press.

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It’s hurricane season: This is what you need to do before, during, and after a disaster

Fourteen named storms—including seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes—are expected to form during the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1. The Weather Company expects the season to be slightly less active than last year but warns that residents along the coastal U.S. should be prepared no matter the forecast.

For community associations in these states, that means reviewing current emergency preparedness procedures for before, during, and after a hurricane, what supplies to include in emergency kits, and who to contact in the immediate aftermath.

Standard features of a hurricane plan include emergency contact information, responsibilities of the board, management, and residents, and a list of services that might be unavailable during and after a hurricane.

More specifically, this plan should have several checklists, including those that cover:

  • Actions for the community’s incident commander
  • Tasks that residents should complete before they evacuate
  • Pre-storm and post-storm communications
  • Post-storm grounds survey and cleanup
  • Post-storm inspection of residential units

In addition, the plan should have a prepared notice advising residents of an impending hurricane and the risks of staying, a form to be filled out by residents who decide to stay, and what residents should know about the association’s insurance coverage and reserve funds.

Community associations also can make a list of relief organizations at the local and national level that residents can reach out to for help, as well as detail the process to seek aid and debris removal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Maintaining communication is critical during and after the immediate danger has passed. Determine which residents or board members will be on call in the event of an emergency, and identify if any ham radio operators live in the community or in the immediate area in the event that cell towers are rendered inoperable.

Does your community’s hurricane plan cover everything? Access more resources on CAI’s Community Disaster Preparedness & Relief pages.

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Homeowner education: Be resourceful with CAI’s HOAResources.com

The best community associations have knowledgeable governing boards, highly-engaged residents, and educated and trained professional managers leading their communities. CAI has believed that since its founding in 1973, and it’s why we offer information, education, and resources to members and the general public. It’s why we recently launched HOAResources.com, a digital news site for the millions of residents living and working in condominium communities and homeowners associations worldwide.

We recognize that the community association model has evolved and grown up over the years, becoming a well-established and increasingly successful form of community governance and an essential component of the U.S. housing market.

There’s an increasing need to educate, train, and provide the latest news and resources to the millions of potential homebuyers, homeowners, and renters living in these communities. After all, 61 percent of all new housing built for sale is in a community association.

The new site lets CAI members and the general public find practical advice on common issues in the community association housing model. The site will address HOA basics, financial planning, rules and governing documents, as well as security and safety. Many time-tested best practices are showcased on the site, often through free, downloadable documents.

Go to www.HOAResources.com, and share the information with homeowners, friends, and colleagues.

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Talent wanted: How to hire and retain skilled community association managers

Recruiting and retaining skilled managers can be challenging for community associations and management companies, especially in a very competitive labor market and with communities limited by tight budgets.

In this reality, it becomes even more important for associations and management companies to highlight their strengths and address organizational shortcomings, says business speaker and author Peter Sheahan.

The founder and CEO of Karrikins Group, a Denver-based business growth strategy consulting firm, Sheahan has been an innovative business thinker for more than 20 years. He has advised leaders at companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Hyundai, IBM, and Wells Fargo. He’s also authored seven books, including the recently released Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value, and Become the Obvious Choice and Generation Y, a book about the millennial workforce.

Peter Sheahan

Generation Y came about due to Sheahan’s experience as manager of a hotel in Sydney, Australia. “I noticed there was a very big disconnect between what the young people that I was hiring wanted from their experience of work and what I needed from them at work, as their employer,” he says.

Since that formative experience, Sheahan and his team have strived to help company leaders understand ways to attract talented workers.

“People think that the secret to attracting and retaining talent is little things like, ‘Let’s give them free lunch’ or ‘What perks can we offer?’ or ‘What are our benefits compared to the benefits down the road?’ But at the end of the day, it really comes down to the quality of the organization,” Sheahan says. “Is it successful? Is it high performing? Because good, smart people want to work in those environments.”

Sheahan recommends a few best practices for community associations and management companies for recruiting and retaining talent:

    1. Stop thinking about tactics, and start thinking about the performance of the organization. The focus should be on building an organization that is robust and resilient. “Great organizations have no trouble attracting and retaining talent,” says Sheahan.
    2. Build a culture that people want to work in. The perks and benefits can’t be the only lure for bringing in talented workers. Sheahan warns that if the culture doesn’t reflect what was promised to the manager when hired, “You’ll find yourself in bigger trouble.”
    3. Be courageous. It’s important to brave a tight labor market to find talented people, says Sheahan. It’s also about having the courage to build a high-performing team. “A team is only as strong as its weakest link, so we need to be capable of managing the performance of the underperformers or, at times, even having the courage to move people on,” he says.

Sheahan will be one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 CAI Annual Conference and Exposition: Community NOW, May 15-18, in Orlando.

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Made in the HOA: 5 steps for effective community association leadership

Some volunteers who have served on a community association board have realized that much of what works for them in their day job doesn’t work as well in the context of board governance. That’s because, in an association, no single person is in charge. Decisions are made by the consensus of board members, so the chain of command is horizontal and less hierarchical.

The best board members understand this very different paradigm. They also prepare for the role and follow the steps below.

Embrace group decision-making

The individual director typically has no power. Once directors embrace the framework of the board as decision-maker, they understand that they cannot make individual promises. This restraint can be very freeing since no individual is responsible for the association and its actions.

Know limitations

A director’s role is in the title; he or she is a person who gives direction. Directors are not normally required or expected to act. The board directs its manager, employees, and service providers to act through association policy and individual decisions.

A director has got to know his or her limitations. The best accept that they do not know everything; they rely upon managers, consultants, and committees. Such directors handle board disagreements much better by accepting the possibility that another sees or knows something that they do not.

Prepare for meetings

The dynamic between group decision-making and relying on experts should be on full display during association meetings.

The most productive and efficient meetings are the result of committed and prepared volunteers, normally assisted by a great manager. To help bring about the best board meetings as a director:

  • Read the agenda packet.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Talk to the board, not the audience.
  • Ask the manager for input on most motions.
  • Encourage open forum as an important part of meetings, and pay attention.
  • Don’t comment on every motion.
  • Respect your board colleagues.

Handle disputes without hostility

During your board service, there will occasionally be violations of the governing documents or other un-neighborly conduct. Try to work things out. Gentle escalation is almost always preferable to “going legal” right out of the gate.

Don’t assume the violating homeowners are disrespecting the board. They might not understand their rights and responsibilities. Give them a chance to do the right thing.

In addition, don’t be too quick to take sides in a dispute between residents, unless there is independent corroboration of the problem. Encourage residents to work things out as neighbors.

Recruit replacements

Finally, begin identifying and preparing your replacement on the board. Volunteer service should not be a life sentence. Committees are a great place to identify people who not only have the interest but will demonstrate commitment to the association and proper attitudes of service and governance.

April is National Volunteer Month. Stay tuned for a look at some of the inspiring work done by homeowner leaders.

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A nice approach: Finding success in your community and in business

Disputes and disagreements between board members, residents, community managers, staff members, and business partners are an inevitable part of living in a community association. While generating an atmosphere of kindness and respect might seem easier said than done, it can make for a more collaborative and positive environment for all, says advertising leader and best-selling author Linda Kaplan Thaler.

Thaler, who is CEO and president of Kaplan Thaler Productions, has carried the belief throughout her professional career that being nice pays off. Thaler’s advertising agency became famous for developing the Kodak Moments campaign, catapulting Clairol Herbal Essences into notoriety with a series of ads inspired by the iconic deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” and turning “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid” into one of the most recognizable jingles in the world.

Linda Kaplan Thaler

She says that her parents, especially her father, instilled the importance of being mindful and respectful of others. While working on a book that demonstrates this philosophy, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness, she interviewed leaders and CEOs who noted their key to higher productivity and profit margins was practicing kindness.

“We don’t have enough people out there, enough leaders out there, who are really espousing this belief that being nice is really a tool for success. You are not filling people’s champagne glass. You are not a doormat,” Thaler emphasizes. “It is a fine strength when you can allow people in to collaborate. At the end of the day, people will work much harder if they feel acknowledged and if they feel like part of the process.”

The same applies to community associations. Thaler believes that codes of civility are a great way to get people toward a path of being nice to one another. “You can’t have a culture, or an association, or a group of homeowners who will feel comfortable with each other if incivility is allowed, if disrespect is allowed,” she explains.

But actions always go beyond words, and community associations can practice what they preach in simple ways. “Listening is such a huge part of creating a culture where people are nice to each other, where people are kind to each other, because they feel like they are being heard,” Thaler says, adding that listening is also critical to creating empathy and connecting with people.

“The other thing is that you can deflect a lot of tension with humor. When we make another person laugh, we are basically creating a bond,” she notes, saying that humor can be a tool before communicating decisions that may not sit well with many people. “I think it’s very important to use humor in a way that says, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ”

Thaler will be one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 CAI Annual Conference and Exposition: Community NOW, May 15-18, in Orlando.

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