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MLS OUTLOOK: help the media understand

March 1, 2006

By Elaine Gast

MLS and the

Press

Why the media get real estate issues so wrong . . . and what you can do about it.

There’s something rotten in the news these days. Although news media across the country are reporting on the real estate boom—from the New York Times to the Topeka Capital Journal—very few cast Realtors® in a positive light. When reporters aren’t portraying Realtors® as money-hungry hustlers, chances are they’re botching facts or bungling quotes.

Most of the inaccurate reporting has surrounded one issue: online real estate listings and consumers’ access to them. For example, a recent editorial in USA Today asserts that “realty agents are doing all they can to prevent the Internet from benefiting homebuyers and sellers or undercutting their lock on the real estate business.”

And a March 5 New York Times Magazine article said sales commissions are “fixed” and that “most real-estate agents seem to spend 95 percent of their energy chasing clients (for which they are paid nothing) and 5 percent actually serving them (for which they are paid way too much).”

These unfair lashings raise the ire of ethical Realtors® across the country, and they are looking to their associations to do something about this public image problem. Although reporters will always write according to the most provocative angle, AEs can help reporters get their facts straight and fend off the flow of negative press. Here’s how:

Understand the

Media

The first thing you need to do is understand not only who your local media are, but what they want.

Many associations—and people, for that matter—have a misconception about what makes news news. According to Steve Cook, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Realtors®, “News isn’t what members think it should be; news is what an editor or news director decides it is.” Unless it’s interesting, entertaining, controversial, or new, you can assume the media aren’t interested.

Editors are always looking for a story, even when there may not be a story to tell. If the current news isn’t sexy, reporters tend to slant it on the side of sensationalism. “It’s about raising an issue that will sell more copies,” explains Blanche Evans, editor of Realty Times. “It is a whole lot more profitable to stir up readers’ emotions than to say ‘you know, there really isn’t much of a story here.’”

It doesn’t help that there is a high concentration of media outlets in the Northeast, where housing is expensive, Evans explains. “The media there are generally younger and hence shut out from buying homes, so they are more inclined to take potshots at the American dream.”

Tim Kent, executive vice president of the North Carolina Association of Realtors®, might agree. “The media are more likely to rent and don’t completely appreciate the value of home ownership,” he says. “They don’t always have a deep understanding of the issues.”

If this is the case, it’s up to Realtor® associations to inform them. According to Cook, associations can improve the odds of receiving fair and accurate coverage. “It’s up to us to build relationships with those who cover us—to do all we can to educate them about our business,” he explained in a recent media training session NAR gave for regional vice presidents, adding, “The media might understand us if we talk to them—and they surely won’t understand us if we don’t.”

Make Friends with the Media

“It should be the goal of every association to be at the top of your local media’s Rolodex so that you are the first person they call when they have a [real estate] related question or story,” says John Dulczewski, director of communications and professional development, and former director of public affairs, for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors®.

Is this tougher than it sounds? Not if you consider any contact with reporters as an opportunity to get your message across. “You can use any meeting to propose your association’s agenda for the year, or discuss recent trends in the market,” Dulczewski explains. If you make a proactive effort to keep reporters in the loop, “soon the reporter will come to you for credible information, and if they aren’t doing so already, convey a softer, more supportive tone when discussing real estate issues,” he concludes.

According to Dulczewski and others, you can establish a rapport with reporters in a number of ways:

* Prove that you are accessible: Alwaysget back to them within 30-60 minutesfrom when they call or e-mail.

* Pitch positive; pitch pertinent: Contact them by phone, e-mail, or fax only to share something newsworthy.

* Foster the development of a relationship: Ask them to lunch, but don’t treat—you don’t want it to be seen as a carrot for a good story.

* Stick to the talking points: Determine two or three key points you want to make and reiterate them.

* Keep it conversational: Talk conversationally and simply—never defensively.

* Respect deadlines: Be sure to find—and respect—them.

* Always assume you’re “on the record”: At the end of the day, a reporter is a reporter. Carefully consider all the information you share and remember you’re never “off the record.”

Bad Press Happens to Good

People

Say the bad press is already out there. How do you clean up the mess?

nPut out fires before they start. According to Tim Kent of NCAR, the local media will often use a trick he calls “follow the leader.” “When the Wall Street Journal or New York Times or Money Magazine run stories, the smaller papers will follow suit with a local angle.” Kent isn’t just hypothesizing. Prior to taking on his role at NCAR, he was a reporter for 13 years. His tip? Scan the major dailies to learn what’s being said out there about the industry and be prepared to respond.

nDon’t expect the media to change the way they do business. “The media will very rarely retract or disavow a story. At best they’ll correct a single fact or inaccuracy, but even then the corrections are typically buried,” says Kent. “We [Realtor® Associations] have to take a negative and turn it into an opportunity.”

According to Kent, if an article is inaccurate, the first thing he would do is call the editor and ask for space to run an editorial in the next day’s paper. Doing this opens communication with the editor and the paper’s reporters, to help avoid any inaccuracies or bias in the future.

If you do write an editorial or a letter to the editor, be sure to substantiate everything you say with hard facts. “Arm yourself with as much data as possible,” Dulczewski advises. “The best way to combat negative press is to find and identify research that refutes inaccuracies.”

nEven if it seems you can’t win, don’t give up the fight. The sooner you accept that bad press happens, the better you can prepare yourself for when it happens to you.

For example, MAR’s leadership and staff once were asked to give lengthy interviews for a story that focused on a limited number of complaints against real estate agents (which they did). When the story ran (“Double Agents: Trust Your Real Estate Broker? Think Again”), the reporter printed only one quote from the association. “The article generated a strong reaction from our membership and throughout the industry,” says Dulczewski.

In response, MAR drafted a letter to the editor that they asked be printed in its entirety.

The paper refused but did print a highly abbreviated, edited version. MAR didn’t give up there. “We requested a meeting with the publication’s editor, which we used to express our disappointment in the method [in which] the story was prepared and written.” More important, they used the meeting to make a positive pitch. “We appealed to the publication staff to use us as a resource for industry information and also recommended to the editor several story ideas for the future.”

You’ve heard the saying “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” This adage aptly sums up how you should communicate with the media. You can help your members best by building good relationships with the media—and by viewing negative press as an opportunity to get your message out. “The media can be powerful allies for us,” says Steve Cook of NAR, “if we play our cards right.”