First, she dialed 911. Then Gina Gartner, area manager for Dominium Management Services, called the Minnesota-based firm's public relations vendor to report that a body had been found in an Elk River, Minn., apartment.
Within hours, the vendor, New School Communications in Minneapolis, had hand-delivered a letter to the door of each resident explaining why hazardous materials crews had invaded their building—a tenant who found the body reported that it was attached to a propane tank, which officials feared might explode—and why police had evacuated it. The correspondence also said there was no reason to suspect foul play and invited residents to come to the manager's office with questions.
The letter arrived just in time to quell rumors of a murder. The next day, after police ruled the death a suicide, the vendor handed out another letter giving residents an update.
In the meantime, Gartner and the building's manager left their office doors open and stayed at the complex until late at night in case residents wanted to talk.
“My philosophy is the more we communicate, the better for the residents,” says Gartner. “They're going to take their direction from the management office. Are we going to close the door and be secretive about this, or open the door and communicate openly about it?”
Opening the door, experts say, was the right choice.
“In the absence of communication, rumor is going to fill the gap,” says Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management in Los Angeles. “If you do not communicate, you're allowing people to draw conclusions between their ears.”
First Steps Blois Olson, president of New School Communications, agrees. Keeping residents informed is key to preventing a trauma like a murder, suicide, or fire from scaring tenants into looking for apartments elsewhere, he says.
Management's first step after a crime or during an emergency, he says, should be to call the police and secure the crime scene. Second, staffers should turn their attention to the tenants by letting them know what happened and helping them find temporary lodging if they need it. Next, they should try to get things back to normal.
Property staff shouldn't be shy about asking for help: “Most owners and property managers ... are in somewhat of a state of shock when something major happens,” notes Olson. “If it's a violent crime, there's a good chance they'll know the victim, or this could be the first time they've encountered such a thing. It's good to take a step back, deal with their own feelings, and ask for help.”