Communicating the Right Way Helps You Stand Apart From the Competition

I recently spoke with about 50 real estate agents at Worden and Green, a Century 21 brokerage in Hillsborough, about making oneself stand out. It’s the problem we all have: How do we make ourselves different from the zillions of others in the same business we’re in.

The presentation and discussion led up to five points I suggested they take home:

  • Self-reflection and self-direction are necessary: Creating your brand and differentiating yourself from your competition isn’t something that just happens.  If someone asks why they should do business with you instead of a competitor, you can’t just say, “I’m better.” In fact, what you stand for – your brand – has to be something you decide after a lot of thought about who you are, why you do what you do, what you’re best at, who impacts your success, and what you want people to know about you and think about you. Once you know all that, the actions you must take to build and defend that reputation become more obvious.

 

  • Know thy customer: I can always tell when somebody has thought their communications and marketing plans through because they can tell me in great detail who their customer is. Too many Realtors tell me, “People buying or selling homes,” and too many builders tell me, “People buying a new home.” You have to narrow your target and know as much about your customer as possible. You need to know basic demographics. How do they get information?  Whose advice do they follow?  The more you know, the better you can communicate with them.  Your own credibility as an expert improves because you communicate with stakeholders — be they customers, regulators, other Realtors or anyone else who can help you succeed –  in a form and channel that is readily understood and accepted.

 

  • Consider your message very carefully. When I counsel organizations or individual businesspeople, we spend a lot of time on the message. That includes the wording and the delivery. After all, you can have the most exciting ad around, the best quote in a news article, the pithiest blog entry or the greatest elevator speech, but if it’s not delivered in a way that’s meaningful to your customer, it won’t be heard. And if the message isn’t delivered in words and tone that resonate, your message won’t be heard. And, finally, if you haven’t thought about your message and you say something that misses the mark, you’ve blow your opportunity because your message won’t be heard. So consider what you want to say to your customers very carefully.

 

  • Communicate the way your customers want to communicate and make sure you know if you’ve been heard. If I get you a great placement in a central Pennsylvania newspaper, but your customers are in New Jersey, it really doesn’t matter, does it?  This is part of knowing your customer: How do they like to get information? That’s how you need to deliver it. You may love to do Facebook and, of course, it’s very cool to be on social media. But if you’re dealing with a group that doesn’t use it, you’re not going to be successful. Equally important is to make sure you’re heard, no matter what medium you use.  If nobody is responding to your call to action, you’re not being heard.  You have to figure out why and change it. Is your medium? Is it your message? Once you figure it out, you’ll get better results.

 

  • Engage, engage, engage. Social media is about engagement, not just blasting one-way messages out to the Internet. You need to ask questions and get people to reply to your messaging. For instance, I’d like to know what you think of this blog entry. What do you do to know your customer and to make sure you’re being heard. Even if you’re using traditional media, whether it’s a news release or speaking to a group, there are ways to generate a response.

In today’s world, though, you need more than a simple response. You need to be creating conversations. No matter how you communicate, it needs to be an ongoing thing. And you need to listen and respond and adjust your communications and marketing activities. That’s engaging your audience.  It’s having a conversation. That builds relationships and trust.

And that generates sales.

See the original PowerPoint deck here.

 

October 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Using a Gavel To Hammer Citizens’ Groups Can Cost More Than Legal Fees

Lawsuits, especially over opinions of a citizens’ group, can cost a lot more than dollars.

Should a developer facing a boisterous and vocal community group sue the members of that group to muzzle them? Tempting, isn’t it?

On the Jersey Shore, a homebuilder has done just that. That company received permission to build and sell 76 homes to the general market instead of to active adults, as originally approved. A group of residents, however, doesn’t agree with the change, and has expressed its opposition in a variety of ways. The builder has filed suit, according to the local newspaper, complaining that one of the members of the group has “issued defamatory statements and information constituting libel and slander.”

I don’t know any more than what’s been written in that one article, so I’m not going to comment on this particular case. But it got me thinking: Is it a good idea to fight back against citizen groups by using the courts?

Here are some of my random thoughts. What do you think?

  • Lawsuits are part of the development process in New Jersey. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Usually, suit is filed over interpretation of points of law, not over points of opinion. The arguments are usually esoteric, and tied directly to some law or regulation related to the project.
  • Companies that protect their reputation enjoy better sales, higher customer satisfaction rates and happier employees. They also can usually withstand the unsubstantiated verbal barrages of a citizen’s group. It is, of course, a different story if the citizen’s group is telling the truth and the corporation is isn’t being completely honest.
  •  Court is the appropriate place to prove a point of law, but is it the appropriate place to stop or hobble a conversation? Even if the gavel drops eventually in favor of a developer who complains in court that people are saying bad things about the company or a community, does anyone really believe they’ve gagged the opposition?
  • There are more expenses to a lawsuit than financial ones. One must weigh the reputational and good-will costs and compare them to walking away from a project or just gritting one’s teeth and bearing the insults. A lawsuit will be seen as heavy artillery wielded by a corporation against residents exercising their First Amendment rights. People – including those who will be giving you approvals and buying your homes – may wonder why the company was so heavy-handed.
  • There are other steps to try before filing a highly visible lawsuit (all lawsuits are highly visible). A developer can meet with the opponents to listen to concerns and, if possible, address them. Use public meetings; op-ed pieces; interviews with news outlets; alliances in the community; direct mail pieces; special Web sites, blogs, Facebook pages or other forms of interaction to communicate. A developer who wanted to build in my neighborhood went door-to-door. Does it work every time? No. Will you win over every opponent? No. Can you proceed and honestly say you’ve listened and tried to address concerns. Yes. Have communities been built and been very successful despite community activism? Yes.

A lawsuit is almost always a last resort. If used to stop someone from saying angry things against a corporation, it must be carefully considered, including how much it will fan flames and what it does to a developer’s attempts to build bridges in the community.

If, however, you find yourself filing such a suit, be ready to defend it in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.

  • Make sure you can clearly explain in a few compelling words why you’ve filed the suit. You have about one sentence to make your case, whether it’s to the media, the mayor or the minions in your company and the community.
  • Make sure your allies and community officials know it’s coming, even if the warning is just a few minutes.
  • Decide with your public relations person whether the filing should be announced or if you should wait for questions.
  • Always respond to the media. Refusing to talk with the media allows your opponents to tell your story for you. Even if you’ve strategically decided not to comment, not returning a reporter’s call is rude. Returning the call keeps the lines of communication open. And remember: Never say “no comment.” You can explain that you can’t comment on pending litigation, or you can decline to speak about specifics, but talk generalities. Your PR person and your attorney must work together to counsel you on your response once a lawsuit is filed.
  • Remember to have your key messages ready and make any interview — media, community appearance or small meeting — yours.

Your development team should include an experienced public relations professional to protect and build your reputation by helping you deal with the media, the community and the government (shameless plug: like In-House Public Relations). Your public relations team is your diplomatic corps. A lawsuit is a big military weapon. You need both to navigate the crazy populist regulatory paths in New Jersey. And your PR team may keep you out of a lawsuit.

The method of dealing with issues that I’m suggesting may take more time and the outcome isn’t assured — you may still wind up in court. But then, a legal verdict is not a sure thing either. The longer method enables you to look everyone in the eye and honestly say you tried to be a good neighbor.

July 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

Spring Brings Optimism To Business, Spring Cleaning Should Include Your How You Communicate

The real estate and homebuilding business is like a neighborhood after a bad storm: Everyone’s happy it’s over and happy to have survived. And while they’re still watching the sky, they’re optimistic enough to smile, start cleaning up and make plans for the future.

Whether you’re a builder, a seller of new or existing homes, or a supplier of the goods and services that keep the industry going, the feeling of rebirth is in the air. I’m hearing a lot people making plans for new business. Those optimistically planning new opportunities would do well to consider one more item that probably needs some spring fixing up: their communications program.

Notice I didn’t say your advertising program. I didn’t say your social media program, your Facebook page, logo, brochures or publicity program. I said your communications program, which includes all those things…and more. If you’ve never considered talking with a public relations professional, maybe this is the time to do it. And if you have, well, work with him or her to take a fresh look.

Some ad agencies have PR departments, but most don’t. PR people look at the world differently than advertising people. We see communications program in terms of measurable goals, consistent messages and strategies that can build and reinforce your most powerful business tool: your reputation. We use all available channels to tell your story to customers, employees, vendors, investors, regulators and the general public. PR is about two-way communications, so we also want to make sure you know what people are thinking of you and your company.

If you’re telling people about your business the same way you did two years ago, you probably need to rethink it. You communications could be as relevant as 2006 home pricing.

Ask yourself some questions:

  • You’ve survived. How are you different than you were?
  • How did you survive? Is it an interesting or inspiring story?
  • How are you reassuring and helping your customers succeed in this new market?
  • What are you doing to support your community. Keep in mind that “community” can have a lot of different meanings.
  • Who is important to the success of your business and how are you communicating with them? Are they listening?
  • How are you measuring success?

These are the kind of questions you need to think about to develop a communications plan for today’s market. Think about hiring a public relations practitioner to discuss these questions. They know how to draw out the answers and they will see things and ask you questions you might not think of. In addition, they will make you flesh out your answers. With the information you and the PR team gather, they’ll develop a plan to develop and deliver messages and gather feedback from the different groups that impact your success.

By telling your story the right way to the right people, you can share your excitement and optimism about the improving market and claim your spot as an industry leader. It’s as important as everything else you’re doing to move ahead for new success.

Let me know some of the new things you’re doing and how you’re explaining them to customers, suppliers and others. And let me know if I can be of assistance.

May 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Wow: Happy birthday to Me: In-House is 1 year old!

I never thought we’d be writing that we survived for a year. It’s gone quickly, though, thanks to supportive friends and interesting clients. Of course, we’re always looking for new organizations we can help.

Here’s the news release we’ve issued about In-House turning one year old:

FLANDERS,N.J.– A recovering economy and improving housing market helped In-House Public Relations enjoy success during its first year of operations, said Doug Fenichel, APR, president of theFlanders, N.J.-based agency.

Public relations firm celebrates first birthday

In-House Public Relations celebrates its first birthday.

Created in May 2011, the agency is celebrating its anniversary this month.

“The height of a recession is hardly a great time to launch a business,” said Fenichel. “Specializing in real estate, homebuilding and related fields when those industries are suffering creates another set of challenges. But we got lucky with timing.”

After 10 years as K. Hovnanian Homes’ director of public relations, Fenichel hung out his own shingle. The name “In-House” came from a double-entendre he used to name a blog while he was a K. Hovnanian.

“I was the in-house public relations counsel there and I wrote about housing and communications,” he said. “The blog had a small following and my idea was to handle my clients as if I was their in-house counsel. Fenichel is too hard to spell, so I named the agency after the blog.”

Fenichel said he hung out his own shingle so he could focus on strategic communications and bolstering clients’ reputation rather than sell a bunch of disconnected tasks that generating billings but don’t really help a client succeed.

Fenichel recently revived the blog, offering Realtors some thoughts about using social and traditional media more strategically.

The accredited public relations professional said his agency’s success is the result of his knowledge of traditional and social media and his ability to use that knowledge to support his clients’ business goals. It also helps that the real estate market is enjoying a revival.

“Everyone I talk to is much more optimistic than they were a year ago,” said Fenichel. “Nobody, including In-House, is out of the woods yet, but people are more optimistic. Homebuyers are looking at new and existing homes, so the companies I work with are seeing more work and sharing that optimism. For the first time, builders and Realtors are making plans for the future.

“We’re excited to be part of those plans,” he added.

How is Fenichel celebrating his one-year anniversary: Working harder.

“It’s nice to be this busy,” he said.

In-House Public Relations is an award-winning, focused public relations firm serving the homebuilding, real estate and public safety industries. Past and current clients include K. Hovnanian Homes, Meritage Homes,Grant HomesUSA, The Holmquist Team of Keller Williams Towne Square Realty and Jockey Hollow Dentistry. Part of a national network of PR firms, it specializes in strategic planning, media and community relations, crisis management and special events.

 

Fenichel has been practicing public relations since 1983, when he left the world of newspapers and joined AT&T during its divestiture. An accredited practitioner, he is past president of the New Jersey Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and an adjunct professor atFairleighDickensonUniversity.

In addition, he’s a director of the Blood Center of New Jersey, a member of the Chester Area Professional Club and serves on the Mount Olive Economic Development Committee. He’s also an active paramedic and volunteer firefighter.

More information about In-House Public Relations is available at www.inhousepr.biz or by calling (973) 970-3411.

 

May 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm

We’re Back: And We’re Talking About Something More Important Than Social Media!

Realtors and every other type of businessperson — including PR people — are buried in articles, workshops, lectures and conferences about the importance of social media. And there’s no denying the importance of taking part in the digital world that’s taking over everything.

But social media doesn’t always work.

 

In-House Public Relations communications presentation to Realtors

In-House Public Relations’ Doug Fenichel, APR, asserted that thinking strategically about communicating what sets you apart will bring in business.

I know: heresy.  But even if you use the right  key words, optimize correctly, add video and put the links on every social medium you can think of, social media might not work.  The reason is simple: If you’re not addressing the right people with the right message at the right time the way they want to get it, your communications just won’t be effective.

Social media mavens sometimes forget to tell you this. But we talked about it in a great discussion with some Realtors at Century 21 Worden & Green in Hillsborough, N.J., the other night.  The participants ranged from one woman who used email but didn’t want any other part of Web 2.0, to a young guy who was really into social media — yes, they both could have been stereotypes for users of social media.

In between were a lot of folks trying to figure out how to use Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Trulia, Active Rain, their own websites and other digital tools effectively.  There are plenty of places to find how-to guides to figure out the specifics, so we took on the bigger picture.

I asked each person  how they were different from other Realtors and  how they were using that difference to generate business. Most hadn’t thought about it that way. I gave them 10 questions to consider before embarking on any communications initiative and I assured them that the goal in communications today was to engage customers. That’s thinking strategically and such strategies are best executed with a mix of tactics including social media.

You can see the slides and the 1o questions here: http://www.slideshare.net/dougtheprguy/what-makes-you-different-12872274   A strategic approach to communications, such as I’ve described in these slides, is what public relations people specialize in.

Those of us in real estate and  homebuilding are reinventing ourselves as the market begins to come back to life. The communications strategies you used before the crash won’t work. It’s more important than ever to think about how you’re communicating and know what you want to get out of those communications…and those 10 questions gave the folks at Century 21 the tools to start thinking about that.

What makes you different? How are you communicating that to generate business. And how do you know it’s working?

May 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm

So Who Made You An Expert?

Back when I was a reporter, covering the U.S. District Court for the Tulsa Tribune, the late Judge Allen Barrow used to shake his head whenever an attorney introduced an “expert” witness. After listening to all the qualifications, Judge Barrow would sigh theatrically and ask the witness where they were from. “Well,” he’d say after hearing the answer, “I guess that’s about 25 miles. Did you bring a brief case?” The witness, of course, would say yes, and Barrow would say, “Well you came more than 20 miles and brought a brief case. I guess that makes you an expert.”

Experts were important, however. During one trial, the expert witness turned the court into an economics classroom for two weeks and swayed the jury. The result of that trial is that you can run to the ATM if you’re short on cash. (If you really want to read about the case, click here.)

In today’s frenetic, media-hyped marketplace, your expertise should be a major part of your reputation and business strategy.  Demonstrating your expertise can lead to a jury verdict in your favor. In the marketplace, that’s a sale.

Establishing your reputation and expertise is something advertising can’t do, but it’s a key part of the public relations toolbox. Your PR counselor can work with you to establish your expertise.   Do you have academic credentials or years of experience? Have you ever published an article in a trade journal or been quoted in a newspaper story? Do you teach about your area of expertise? You, too, may be an expert.

Sharing your expertise with the right people in the right way improves your reputation and credibility. It’s a way to establish a relationship and trust. Those who accept your expertise will be more likely to do business with you. How you present your expertise will have a lot to do with the decision they make.

If nobody knows what an expert you are, it’s time to tell them. You’ll need to do it in a credible, entertaining way. The good news is that you don’t have to travel 20 miles and carry a briefcase.

Talk to your public relations counselor about establishing your expertise. Or call me. You can ask me what make me an expert when we talk. I’m definitely going to ask you that question.

September 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm

3 PR Lessons For All Businesses Observed While Spending Hurricane Irene In A Paramedic Truck

Natural disasters are strange times for me. I am a homeowner who is concerned for his home and family, a paramedic and a firefighter who is concerned for his brothers and sisters and wants to do what he can to help the victims of the event, and I’m a PR guy ready to help his clients prepare for the disaster and recovery from it. I always enjoy watching what others are doing and saying during the storm.

So having spent all of the storm weekend on a paramedic truck or a fire truck (up to about noon Monday) here are some observations:

  • Kudos to the public officials who got people out of harm’s way, knowing full well they were going to be criticized no matter what they did. They stayed on message with laser-like focus. While that message may have seemed obvious, everyone from governors to local officials transmitted the same message, the presentation was well orchestrated and consistent and it was presented across a variety of media. As a result, lives were saved. Even away from the most devastated areas, people were better prepared for flooding and power outages because of the focus on the message. And to those now complaining the dangers were oversold, well, I’ll be polite: Go find something better to do with your time…like help those without power and with basements full of water bail out. Or help those whose homes and businesses were destroyed rebuild. If nothing else, just stop and pay your respects to those who lost loved ones.   Are there messages here for how you run your business? Definitely: A simple message consistently and forcefully delivered at all levels of an organization will yield results. But someone will still bitch about it.
  •  If anyone still doubts still doubts that social media is main stream, look at the wide use it enjoyed during the storm. Many governmental entities, including the county and township in which I live, used a combination of Web sites, Twitter and Facebook to keep constituents up to date on information from road closings to dam bursts and evacuations to dealing with tainted food. News organizations gathered and used audience pix and videos. And the hospital where I’m a medic used text messaging, emails and Web sites to assure the staff was up to date and keep all of its EMS vehicles staffed and on the road. If all these organizations know they must use social media, don’t you think you should make sure you’re using the same channels to engage your audience?
  •  How did your crisis plan work? Did your employees know what your company was doing in preparation for and in recovery from the storm? Did your customers know? Did you have a crisis plan? Every organization should have a plan of what to do when it is threatened, whether by a competitor, a person’s deliberate or accidental action or a natural disaster that threatens its ability to provide whatever service it provides. If your crisis plan didn’t address the preparation and outcome of this hurricane, or if you winged it, maybe you should contact a public relations practitioner to help you better prepare for the next literal or figurative storm.

 Hurricane Irene gave us all stories to tell our friends and relatives. But it also should serve as a teaching moment. None of us want to see another Irene. But we will. And before we see a hurricane identified by the National Weather Service, we’ll likely see our businesses rocked by a figurative storm. Here are three lessons that can be applied.

Good luck.

August 30, 2011 at 12:53 pm 1 comment

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