I was recently contacted by a self-storage owner who had a break-in at his facility. More than 50 units were compromised, and he was concerned about media coverage and how it would affect his business.
Although a break-in is not a disaster like a fire or flood, it can be an insurance and public-relations nightmare. You should have procedures in place—and your staff trained—long before the reporters arrive on your doorstep. Here are 10 rules you should always follow.
No. 1: Brief everyone.
Include this simple statement in the employee handbook or operations manual: No employee is ever permitted to speak to the media. This, by the way, is true of even the “good” stories.
The company should have one official spokesperson—usually the owner, regional manager, attorney, etc. Beyond that no one should speak to the media. If a conflicting answer is given by two different representatives, it could reflect poorly on your facility.
No. 2: Prepare a written statement.
If there is a break-in or other crisis at the facility, prepare a written statement and distribute it in response to any requests for an interview or information. If you give a statement to the media in writing your words cannot be twisted or taken out of context. It should be well-written, free of grammatical and spelling errors. If possible, craft a statement before something happens, leaving blanks that can be filled in the event of a crisis. This should include general facility information, how long you have been in business, etc. If you know someone with public relations experience, ask for assistance.
No. 3: Stick to the facts.
You may think you know other “facts” about the event, you suspect someone was involved, you heard something or there is something you saw on the videotape; however, if you do not know these facts with 100 percent certainty, do not comment on them. Here’s an example of a generic statement:
We are aware there was a break-in at the facility and property appears to have been taken. The facility and the company are cooperating with the authorities. We are trying to reach our valuable tenants to notify them that their unit may have been involved. We will be making arrangements with the tenants to let them in on a one-by-one basis to allow them to assess any loss and assist them with reporting the loss to the occupant’s insurance carrier. Our rental agreements require occupants carry insurance on their stored property, so we expect that insurance companies will allow our occupants to make a full recovery of any loss they suffered.
For the most part, the statement is all you will actually know the first time you speak with the media. Notice it does not include the number of units broken into, how the theft occurred, whether there was any breach of security systems, what was stolen, if there is videotape of the incident, etc. These are not the facts you should give to the press.
No. 4: Do not think you can “help” the media.
There is no such thing as helping a story and any attempt to help violates rules one through three. Stick to the facts, even if you think you can help “guide” the story or you worry it will be mischaracterized if you do not give out more information. Certain elements may be mischaracterized anyway; do not risk adding any fuel to the fire.
No. 5: Never let the media on the property.
While you cannot stop media from videotaping, photographing or broadcasting from across the street or down the block, you can stop them from broadcasting and photographing on your property. Never let them broadcast from your property, particularly in front of your facility sign. If the media does come onto the property, ask them nicely (you may be on tape) to leave once, tell them they are trespassing; if they do not leave, ask the police for assistance.
No. 6: Check your sign.
If you have a message board that changes automatically or with letters you slide on and you are currently advertising “safe, secure, clean units available,” change the message without drawing too much attention to yourself. A sign touting “safe or secure” in the midst of a break-in could become fodder for questions in any news story.
No. 7: Do not feel threatened by any statements the media makes.
If you do not talk to the media, they will claim they tried to reach you and you would not respond or had no comment. This is often inaccurate. You do have a comment, it is in writing, and you provided it to any media member who asked for it.
No. 8: Express regret without admitting guilt or liability.
You can always say, “We regret this incident happened.” Don’t admit guilt or that anything that happened was the result of any omission or failure on your part. For example, you should never say, “We have been having trouble with the gate for the last few weeks and it does not surprise me that someone finally took advantage of this.”
No. 9: Be prepared to circulate a letter to your occupants.
There are really three components to this. First, your tenants should hear about the break-in from you, not the media. This ensures they receive the correct information. Second, do not admit to facts you do not know for certain. This goes back to rules two and three; these are the same types of facts that were in the press release.
Lastly, let occupants know you have a plan. If you’ve closed access to the facility because units are exposed, let your tenants know how they can get into their units to inspect and re-lock them. Also, let them know you’ll provide assistance in filing insurance claims. You can also make a helpful suggestion, such as bringing a camera to document the inspection. All of this puts you in the driver’s seat, as it were, with your occupants so you are perceived as organized, aware of the situation and doing your best to help them.
This notice should also tell occupants that if they haven’t inspected their units by a certain date you will re-lock the unit—and charge the cost of the new lock to their account—so that you can re-open the facility to normal business.
The letter to your tenants should be positive in nature, but emphasize that what happened is not your fault; you are not responsible for the loss; that occupants are supposed to have insurance, but that you will help with the claim as much as you can. You can also offer a small incentive, such as a discount, for the inconvenience without admitting guilt. This is a goodwill gesture, not an admission of wrongdoing.
No. 10: News cycles are short.
The average shelf life of a story is two weeks or less. While you may feel overwhelmed, stressed or unfairly targeted by the media, the good news/bad news is something worse will come along and take your story out of the news.
Be prepared by making sure your staff knows their role when something like this happens, particularly that they cannot “help” by speaking to the media, and have your written statement and plan ready so you can beat the media to the punch.
This article is for the purpose of providing general legal insight into the self-storage field and should not be substituted for the advice of your own attorney.
Jeffrey J. Greenberger is a partner with the law firm of Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP in Cincinnati, and is licensed to practice in Kentucky and Ohio. Mr. Greenberger’s practice focuses primarily on representing the owners and operators of commercial real estate, including self-storage owners and operators. To reach him, call 513.721.5151; visit www.selfstoragelegal.com.