Local HUD Public Relations Disaster

Ed Spychalski

This is an educational story about how a problem escalates if not handled promptly and properly.

The local HUD Housing Authority Board of Directors in Saratoga Springs, NY is in the middle of a public relations disaster and is fanning the fire with all of the wrong actions.

This NBC video summarizes the story.

Originally a Limited Problem:

While the local HUD board is responsible for nearly 400 housing units, the issue started with “only” 6 units in a 174-apartment building that is mainly for lower-income seniors.

Original Problem: Bed Bugs

Bed bugs were reported in a few of the apartments. Nothing surprising here: Bed bugs have been found in 5-star hotels, apartments, condominiums, and exclusive stores throughout the United States.

The Public Relations Disaster Was Caused by Badly Handling the Problem:

In July, 6 residents in the building reported bed bugs to the Director.

In early December, several residents came to a City Council meeting pleading for help. While this generated some news coverage about the plight of vulnerable residents, the story had not yet exploded.

At the next City Council meeting, the local HUD Board Chairman and Director came to the city council meeting and:

  • Downplayed the issue: Only a few units have bed bugs.
  • Blamed the residents: “They” brought in the bed bugs so it’s their problem, not ours.
  • Overstated the importance of what they had done in 5 months:
    • Acquired a CD to educate the residents;
    • Bought a steam cleaner residents can use; and
    • Offered to sell them plastic mattress covers.
    • Took a stalling approach: We hired an expert to solve this.
    • Did not commit to owning or solving the problem.
    • Did not apologize.

This is a perfect teaching list of what NOT to do when confronted with a problem. But wait, it gets worse.

Thursday, the Board had their regularly scheduled meeting, which was their chance to start digging out of this hole. Sadly, they added to their problems by being controlling and heavy handed.

  • Allowed only 10 minutes of public comment.
  • Tried to limit comments to 1 minute each.
  • Had a city policemen step in and control the crowd who wanted to continue providing input. There were 5 more policemen reported in the area, which must be every officer on duty at the time.
  • Awkwardly and obviously orchestrated residents to praise the Director.
  • Did not address solving the criticisms.
  • Shut down the internal broadcast of the Board meeting for residents for the first time.
    • The Saratogian, our local daily, had a good and atypically (for them) biting summary of the meeting, including this excellent video that captures the audience’s frustration.

At least 6 newspapers and all of the area TV stations have had multiple stories and several blistering editorials (great reading). One of the more interesting articles begins: “The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority Director faces a rebellion that now extends way beyond how he has addressed a growing bed bug problem.”  The leading talk radio station also blasted the board.

John Tighe, the local crusading blogger took this on. After he posted a video of the presentations to the City Council, he was charged with trespassing while taking pictures of the Director’s truck in the building’s parking lot. This energized the blogger who found that:

  • The board has raised the Director’s salary more than 100% in 6 years…he’s now making more than $150K.
  • The Board Chair and the Director went to a HUD convention in Florida in January after stating that they couldn’t afford to hire a pest-control firm to fix the problem.
  • There is rampant nepotism, including the Director’s son being promoted without going through Civil Service, as required.

The blogger is now a source for the mainstream media.

The story has morphed. The center of the storm now is about the Director’s lavish salary and the Board’s lack of accountability…with the original problem merely background.

Lesson: Had the Board jumped on this problem once it became public, it wouldn’t have generated a backlash about their competency and legitimacy.

I’ll end with another video of one of our City Counselors showing outrage and frustration trying to get help to correct these problems. Can anyone help him reach the right person at HUD or elsewhere who can help this situation?

About Richard Sellers

Richard is Chairman Emeritus of the Marketing Executives Networking Group, founder of Demand Marketing consulting firm, and former Sr. VP of Marketing for three multi-billion dollar companies: CEC, WLP, and Service Merchandise. His early career was at GE, P&G, Playtex, and Marketing Corporation of America. He’s also a volunteer counselor for SCORE assisting small businesses in upstate New York. You can follow his communications about marketing, job search and careers here and at mengonlineENTREPRENEURS QUESTIONS, and on Twitter at @Sellers_Richard.



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