Connecting with Your Community: Communication Best Practices
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It’s happened to you before – you write an eloquent email about the new extensive garage project, stating all the pertinent information and the steps residents must take. Then after you send out your opus, you get thirty emails asking the same questions and thirty other people say they didn’t understand or didn’t receive any communication! What went wrong? Your message didn’t connect with your community. To avoid this type of mishap, you need to rely on HOA communication best practices.
Effective communication helps foster better relationships among board members, your residents and property management company, and keeps all parties well informed. There are several areas of focus while you are drafting communications that will ensure your audience will read and apply what you’ve communicated. Taking care to address each area will ensure that your residents read your HOA communications and respond appropriately.
What Form Should the HOA Communication Take?
Knowing what, when and how to use the proper communication channels ensures your messages will reach as many residents as possible.
The form or vehicle of your HOA communication is usually determined by the audience and the content. A one-page flyer is appropriate for brief, urgent communications, while an email may give you more space for background information or complex ideas. Emails win for fast messaging to a large group, where readers quickly read, act on and keep for the future. Phone calls excel for succinct requests and replies to individuals, speedy updates, short reminders or check-ins. Community association laws dictate that certain types of communication channels for certain activity; ask your property manager if you’re unsure what vehicle you should use.
“It’s important to know how your audience responds to information; it is not effective to send an email if many people either don’t have email or prefer to read a hardcopy of a message,” says Shelli Higerd Regional Director. In those cases, a letter would work best. Conversely, it can be expensive to mail hard copies of large reports, so the communication vehicle may need to change.
The channels available to you may include email, social media, your management company’s communication portal, community website and newsletter, text messages, phone calls, flyers, bulletin board announcements and board meetings. Becoming familiar with them will allow you to spot opportunities and identify gaps where people aren’t receiving enough information.
If you usually write for the same audience, you probably already know how they like to receive information and how they might respond. So that people are motivated to read your communication, think about what they want from you and how you can capture their attention. Everyone will want to read an HOA communication that warns them about a pipe leak in their building, but they need more motivation to read and respond to a request for them to send us paperwork that primarily benefits the managing company.
How Should the Message be Presented?
You should determine the level of knowledge, interest, and any potential biases the audience may have regarding your message. Whether you’re writing an e-blast, a memo, a report or meeting minutes, it’s wise to take a few minutes to plan the communication before you begin writing. You will want to answer the questions:
Who is your audience and what do they want?
What do you want them to know or to do?
What do they need from you to do it?
What is the best vehicle for your message?
The simplest form of message is the form used by press releases and newspapers articles, which attempt to answer the questions “Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?” within a sentence or two. Beginning a draft this way is an excellent approach to homing in on the essence of the message; you can build upon this skeleton to flesh out the message.
If your audience has a high interest level in your HOA communication, you can go directly to the point without taking much time to pique their interest. Build a good, logical argument. If your audience has a low interest level, you should use more of a tell/sell style to motivate the reader’s interest. Keep your message as short and focused as possible, since long documents are intimidating and listeners tend to tune out what seems like rambling.
Shelli says, “It’s hard to gauge a person’s tone when reading an email, so keep an open mind and check in with the person verbally if the discussion seems heated.” By phone or email, people don’t see your body language so give verbal cues, like reflecting back what they say, so they know they’re understood.
Know What Not to Write
Just as you were taught in school, email correspondence and even phone conversations are part of your permanent record! Any document can be subpoenaed as part of a legal action. Unnecessary commentary can be at best embarrassing and at worst discriminatory.
That’s why it’s so important to be careful about what and how you write about association business. When handling sensitive situations, be especially careful with subjects containing protected characteristics such as:
Race, color, genetics or national origin;
Sexual orientation, age or gender; or
Disability, marital or military status.
These topics, and other emotionally charged situations such as lawsuits, may be best handled over the phone rather than email, since email is more easily misunderstood than a verbal conversation. If you are having trouble getting the person on the phone, send them an email or letter simply asking them to call you back. In either type of communication, though, stick to the facts and leave opinion and personality out, as these can come back to bite you.
Whatever you write, always keep it professional. Maintain a proper level of business formality and avoid any off-color language, joking or comments that could be misconstrued. Review any sensitive/charged email before you send it or ask someone else to review it for you.
Pro Tip: always add the email address just before you send it, so that you do not accidentally send an email before you’re ready.
Remember that any association-based email can be subpoenaed in a lawsuit. To avoid having a stray personal email scooped up into an association investigation, handle your personal business on your personal email. The best practice is for board members to use an association-based email address for board business, instead of their work email accounts.
If a statement would be unwise to say in an open meeting, don’t add it to an email. Remember that there is a “forward” button on all email, so be wary of writing confidential information or anything that would concern you if the whole world saw it!
How well your community operates is largely dependent on how well your board and property manager communicate with residents. Therefore, if you follow the HOA communication best practices listed in this article, you’ll be well on your way to helping your community be better informed and better functioning. If you need help putting together an effective communication program, contact FirstService Residential today.