It may be the pinnacle of land use PR issues management: the 58-story Millennium Tower is the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi (having dethroned Austin’s own Austonian)… built for $350 million and generating more than $750 million in sales… occupied by very affluent condo owners… constructed with concrete piles driven 80 feet into mud fill and sand, in a location where bedrock does not begin until 200 feet… that has now sunk 16 inches more than anticipated and has tilted two inches… in earthquake-prone San Francisco… and the city is suing the developer for knowing about this issue as it was selling condos.
It’s been 12 years since New York-based Mission Street Developers broke ground on the project. In that period, the Millennium has built a reputation as a luxurious addition to the San Francisco skyline, and its tower of gray-blue glass has become a shining example of the tech wealth that has transformed the entire Bay Area. Yet that reputation, like the building itself, has sunk and public opinion about the building is leaning the other way.
If the developers truly believe the tower’s sinking and tilting issue is not its fault, but rather due to the construction of the adjacent $4.5 billion Transbay Transit Center, then they should quickly study the Image Repair Theory typology of Dr. William Benoit of Ohio University. The IRT typology comprises a number of strategies for responding to perceived mistakes and misdeeds, grouped into five broad categories:
- Denial. Either the bad thing didn’t happen, or it wasn’t the organization’s fault. By shifting blame to the Transbay Transit Center, the Millennium Tower developers are currently using a denial strategy.
- Evading responsibility. This involves providing a justification that absolves one for doing the bad thing — such as “It was an accident,” or “I meant well,” or “so-and-so made me do it.” If the Millennium Tower developers said they had to build an insufficient foundation because of some outside factor, that response would fit here.
- Reducing offensiveness. These messages and strategies concede the bad thing happened, but it’s not as bad as it appears. In the Millennium Tower case, the developers could point to the project’s success and contributions to the community, or downplay the significance of the sinking and tilting, or question the credibility of the city’s experts.
- Corrective action. This is what it sounds like: “The bad thing happened and we’re going to fix it.” It does not necessarily mean admitting fault.
- Mortification. This is an actual apology, which is different from promising corrective action.
With these options for image repair in mind, here’s what we would recommend to the developers of the Millennium Tower:
- Embrace corrective action. Even the best, most charming, most community-minded developers are often seen — especially in a place like San Francisco — as powerful, greedy and untrustworthy. This makes it difficult to succeed with a simple blame-shifting response. Instead, the developer could commit to finding solutions to prevent any more sinking and tilting, while keeping all the stakeholders — residents, adjacent property owners and their tenants, city officials and more — proactively informed of the progress they are making toward a solution.
- Use multiple, accessible channels to make the case. Holding press conferences with attorneys or engineers talking through big concepts and technical details is frustrating for those who didn’t graduate with a law or engineering degree. The developer needs simple fact sheets, animated video and infographics that can be easily shared to tell its story, ideally housed on an easy-to-navigate microsite devoted to this issue, independent of the building’s marketing site.
- Stick to three main message points. It’s important to focus on the power of the triad structure to help people better remember what you want them to. In this case, we would recommend focusing on the fact that (1) there is no reason to be alarmed (unless there is), (2) the developer is working hard toward a solution and (3) the developer will keep everyone informed as the issue progresses. (Note that keeping people informed also means monitoring news and social media coverage and pushing back on inaccurate information.)
If the developer and its team made a poor or cheap (but not a criminally negligent) decision, there remains an opportunity to express regret, offer a solution, take the financial loss and move on. Regardless, we have a sinking feeling the developer has its work cut out for itself.