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Take Back the Narrative in Commercial Real Estate

During times of market uncertainty, a strong, clear message is vital to building and maintaining trust.

Effective communication is no easy feat, and it is even more difficult when everyone is talking about how your industry could be in trouble.  

That’s the situation in commercial real estate (CRE) these days, where the negative headlines just keep coming. As if the pandemic-related news wasn’t enough, the industry received another wallop earlier this year as fears about regional banks began to spread. Higher interest rates and increased scrutiny around lending have contributed to negative headlines about the $20 trillion U.S. CRE market.

During times of market uncertainty, a strong, clear message is vital to building and maintaining trust. That’s why it’s important for CRE firms to communicate in a way that effectively and confidently tells their story to stakeholders - despite what headlines may convey.

Don’t Stay in Your Foxhole

Though it may be tempting to avoid external events, such as conferences and media interactions, now is the time to tell your story and frame your narrative. Questions and comments are likely to be tough, so it’s up to you to acknowledge the challenges, embrace the current environment, and focus on where the opportunities may be. Addressing the negative right away will also help establish and maintain credibility with your stakeholders.

Then pivot to the opportunity at hand. Share the interesting pockets for investment, whether it’s a specific region or sector. Give your audience an anecdote, backed by compelling data. Where are the green shoots? Remind the audience of the larger factors at play. For example, if economists (or one particularly well-regarded economist) are changing their opinion about the likelihood of recession, use that to bolster your message. If the drumbeat of negative news doesn’t reflect your company’s position, then it’s up to you to help soften the rumble.

If you’re still wary of external communications, shift your strategy to focus on owned content. These platforms, including your company’s blog posts, newsletters, podcasts, or bylines, give you a chance to control your narrative while amplifying your perspective to target audiences.

Communicate The Plan – And Then Do It Again

Once you acknowledge the industry’s problems, it’s time to let your stakeholders know what you are doing about it. And don’t just save it for Investor Day. Develop a concise, detailed narrative that is easily digestible and addresses the biggest questions that your stakeholders want answered.

Then choose a bench of company ambassadors and spokespersons who can communicate your narrative across platforms in a consistent way. Stakeholders want to hear from individuals, but the message will go unheard if that person isn’t a good communicator. Set up training and practice sessions that include role-playing so you can anticipate the tough questions that will come from a reporter, investor, or policymaker. Record the session and then watch it back, looking for stumbles or inconsistencies.

Then it’s time to hammer the point home – again and again. The best way to leverage your bench of spokespeople and their unique expertise is through various channels – whether it be across LinkedIn, media placements, showing up at the right events, or earning awards that place you as leaders within the industry. It may sound repetitive to you, but each outreach in each channel can reach a new audience.

These thought leaders can also earn industry credibility and name recognition simply by serving as a resource and educator to audiences, communicating solutions that tie back to your corporate narrative and value proposition. Be well-versed on key industry data, including comparisons with previous quarters or years.

Don’t Forget Your Employees

Chances are your employees are seeing and hearing the flood of negative news that has hit the CRE industry, causing confusion and anxiety about their jobs and their careers.

Fortunately, company leadership has the upper hand in influencing this important audience. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, three quarters of respondents agree that a trusted CEO always tells the truth, even if it makes it harder to accomplish their goals. Furthermore, Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust at Work found that employees say communication from their employer is more believable than the government or the media. That means your employees are brand ambassadors for your narrative.

Take the time for regular communications with your employees about the state of the industry, not just your own corporate narrative. Talk to them about how cultural shifts, such as return-to-office and hybrid work policies, are impacting your business. For companies with offices in multiple geographies, adapt the conversation to developments in the local area, such as the construction of a new housing complex or office park. Explain to them why those examples are important signs for the industry and your company.

Finally, Edelman research has found that more employees are already sharing and posting content about their employer weekly or more often, so encourage them to share their optimism about your company and the industry on their personal social channels.

Adapt and Evolve

No narrative is static and that is especially the case for market conditions in CRE. It’s important to adapt your story to reflect new achievements, challenges, and goals in a way that is informative and authentic to your audiences. Tailoring your message in real-time will ensure you address any concerns while demonstrating transparency. As you continue to update your audiences, highlight your outlooks, solutions, and strategies to continue building trust among stakeholders.

At the end of the day, effective communication is an ongoing process that requires adaptability and authenticity to demonstrate your resilience. When audiences are looking at your industry and hearing bad news, you can leverage these communications tools to make the best of a difficult situation. Such communications strategies can help you look around corners and bolster your messaging so that you can focus energy on achieving your strategic business goals.

By Christine Broad, Senior Vice President, and Catherine Costakos, Vice President, Commercial Real Estate Leads with Edelman Smithfield. Edelman Smithfield is a global financial communications boutique that specializes in the financial markets and strategic situations.

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