There is a lovely historical theater in my neighborhood. It has a gorgeous neon sign, historically significant murals and statues and a glass and neon ceiling. It's amazing. It's also at the center of a huge fight right now. Over the last few months, it has been on one Facebook drama after another.
It has been painful to witness.
It's not just the worry that the community might lose this lovely gem that is painful. As much as that hurts its even worse to watch a smart businessman fumble the communication ball over and over again.
The cycle of communication goes something like this. A neighborhood resident announces on the Facebook neighborhood group that "something" is happening at the Lakewood theater. So far the somethings have ranged from the current tenant losing their lease to pics of piles of chairs and wood in dumpsters as the current owner rips them out.
Facebook meltdown ensues. People flood the city council's, owner's, local journalist's inboxes and voicemails with calls and protests. People flock to the theater with panic in their hearts to save some remnant of what is being thrown away.
A befuddled and increasingly irritated business owner tries to tell the community it will all be ok. The theater will be safe... he is working on it.
Nobody believes him.
Befuddled business owner blames social media for blowing everything up.
What could make this go better?
Ah, well this is where I bring up that most used of social media buzzwords... TRANSPARENCY. Folks like Gary Vaynerchuk and Seth Godin have been beating this drum for YEARS!
Gary V goes so far to say that the only way to be successful today is to be transparent and authentic. (link to video).
Seriously, he's been telling the world this since 2008. It is not a secret. And the critical connection that Gary V is making is that transprancy=caring. When a business cares enough about their customers to tell them the truth. Customers respond with loyalty and support.
Seth Godin argues that that by trying to maintain power by hiding information from the public you are decreasing profitability.
When customers are in on the details, they are more likely to pay more because they understand the costs associated with delivering a high-quality product. They are more likely to choose "you" the ethical service or product provider over a cheaper alternative because they understand what goes into the price that is being asked.
So what does transparency look like for our poor beleaguered theater owner? How can it help him?
While I understand that the theater is his, and he can pretty much do whatever he wants. If he wants the community on his side, He needs to accept the fact that the theater is as much theirs as it is his.
So my dear theater owner; I know you are struggling. You can't be thrilled with all the bad press and roadblocks. Want to avoid repeated visits from permit inspectors and landmark designation committees? Try a few or ALL of the below.
- Meet with community activists before major changes happen with the theater. Engage them in the plan, allow them to share information with the community at large and LISTEN and RESPOND to their concerns.
- Be seen in person and online. It is a fact that every time you do something the community will react. Whether or not they react negatively is up to you. Post on Facebook, tell them what is happening. Respond in person to comments and complaints. As Seth Godin says, the antidote to speech is more speech. Going silent just feeds the mistrust that is growing every single day.
- PREANNOUNCE your plans before you act. Let people know what is coming. Let them know exactly what you are doing. Show them your permits, plans. Go into excruciating detail. Show them every single thing. If you don't, they will just dig it up, and every single discrepancy they find will be another reason to doubt your word and intentions. It will be yet another reason to point their fingers at you and say "SEE! I TOLD YOU NOT TO TRUST HIM!"
- Instead of fighting against all the passionate folks in the area, why not put them on your team? You claim that you want a theater owner to take over and would only carve out the space into restaurants and shops as a last resort... and yet no action has been taken to overcome the not insignificant issue of parking. One of the major obstacles to that is the community. Engage them in finding a solution to that problem. The community has shown it can band together to effect change. Why not have them help you get the city on your side to impact the zoning in the area? Get them to work with you to get the city to improve sidewalks so the people can walk to the theater. Have them help you work with local businesses to access nearby parking garages. Who knows what other creative solutions to the parking problem they might have up their sleeves?
- Be humble. You don't have all the answers and let's be honest you've made more than a few mistakes. Admit it. Ask for help. People will love you for it.
You might feel like you are being attacked, but the truth is you have it in your power to turn this around. With a little effort and a lot of creativity, your Facebook nightmare could become your greatest blessing. You say it's just business and neighborhood sentiment is irrelevant. By any standard dismissing your customers is bad business. Make no mistake the neighbor is the customer of your customer, and so they are yours.