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RISMEDIA, July 8, 2010—Protecting your brand and your hard-earned reputation is one of the biggest challenges real estate professionals face today with the proliferation of social media within the industry. In this month’s Power Broker Roundtable, industry leaders Doug Rebert, Steve A. Brown and Charlie Bengel, Jr. discuss how real estate companies can prepare for disaster as well as the most proactive ways to handle a disaster—should one occur.

Steve Brown,
Special Liaison for Large Firm Relations, NAR

Doug Rebert,
Co-owner, Partner, Prudential Home Sale Services Group, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Steve A. Brown, General Manager, EVP, Crye-Leike REALTORS®, Nashville, Tennessee
Charlie Bengel, Jr., CEO, RE/MAX Allegiance, Alexandria, Virginia

Steve Brown: One thing is certain in the world we live in—what can be known will be known. Winston Churchill noted decades ago that a rumor can get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on – and today, thanks to the Internet, and the proliferation of social media, from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube and beyond, there simply are no secrets. What is done, others will hear about…your employees…your customers…the media…and the repercussions can be devastating. Nobody likes to think about disaster, but the fact is, stuff happens and information may be taken out of context. So how do brokers prepare for handling the unthinkable, such as a murder on your premises…an embezzlement uncovered …a fire…rumors of deception? Today we’ll talk about how to protect your brand and your hard-earned reputation in the face of unexpected calamity. We’ve invited three industry veterans to join us—Doug Rebert, Charlie Bengel, Jr. and “the other Steve Brown”—no relation to me—who we’ll refer to as Steve A. to avoid confusion. So, what can we do to prepare for disaster? And how do we handle it if it happens? Doug, let’s begin with you.

Doug Rebert: Well, you’re right that nobody likes to think something awful could happen, but one of the things we do to protect our business is carry a lot of insurance – property and casualty insurance, of course, but also partnership and keyperson insurance that would protect the business if something happened to one of the primaries. Beyond that, we make a real effort to be sure we are all able to change hats. That is, each of us heads up a different part of the business, but we’re all capable of taking over for one another if the need should arise for any reason.

Steve A.: Versatility is good strategy. Also, it’s our policy that our business owners never fly together, which adds another level of comfort. And we have multiple general managers in four states, so it wouldn’t be a problem to bring in someone from another area as back-up if we needed to.

Charlie Bengel: As a matter of fact, we had that problem—about four years ago, when our principal broker died unexpectedly. Fortunately, we had enough flexibility to be able to shift gears, but we had not done any succession planning, and we really scrambled to get it sorted out quickly.

Steve Brown: Succession planning is a big issue, and it’s one every broker should address. But what do you do in the face of scandal or if some sort of crime occurs or is rumored to have occurred?

Doug Rebert: Well, we think we’ve got enough checks and balances to avoid any financial scandal – and we’re in a relatively low-crime area, which tends to make us complacent. I guess we don’t fear that too much can go wrong, but I agree that we need to be prepared, especially if whatever happens brings the press to your door.

Steve A: Right. Well, we know it’s important to have good communication across all lines of the company, so our public relations director is a vital part of our executive team. In case of emergency, at least we know we would all be speaking with one voice.

Charlie Bengel: I know we have classes in PR management available, and how to deal with the press—and we know we can look to the franchisor for PR assistance if we need it. But I confess, despite a few brushes with incidents that could have escalated, we’ve been lucky so far and so we haven’t done enough to set up a formal protocol.

Steve Brown: I like Steve’s comment about speaking with one voice –and I asked Lucien Salvant, NAR’s public affairs director, about what else he would advise. He told me NAR has a detailed crisis communications plan in place. It’s for internal use only, although he would be available to work with any broker who needs help getting through a specific crisis. But the best piece of advice he gave me on this topic is “anticipate, anticipate, anticipate.” That is, don’t wait until a crisis happens before you swing into action. Hire a consultant now and brainstorm your way together through a laundry list of possible scenarios. Then figure out who your “one voice” is going to be, so you can respond quickly if you need to.

Charlie Bengel: That makes perfect sense. Toyota would not be in the jam they are in today if they had owned up to their problems right away and acted quickly to make things right.

Steve A: Exactly. That’s a great example of how something can escalate enough to threaten your brand and your business. The truth is, when funds are tight, as we’ve all experienced in the last few years, you’re not looking for places to spend your money. But this gives me pause, especially as an independent broker. I realize we need to not only anticipate, but actually take that next step.

Doug Rebert: Ditto. Independent or not, it is certainly food for thought.