Group aims to change the housing stigma

The National Association of Home Builders works to portray the industry positively in a 'meltdown'

The headlines appear day after day about the US "mortgage meltdown" and its effect on regular homeowners, the building and real estate industries, the US economy in general, and capital markets around the world. To some extent, the news really is as bad as it appears, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Easy credit and low interest rates enticed many people to take out mortgages they couldn't afford. As rates have gone up, some have been able to work with lenders to renegotiate their home loans, but many have simply been unable to make payments. The results: Huge increases in foreclosures around the country and a subsequent downturn in new construction.

But the NAHB communications team says that a large part of their job is helping its local associations - the trade association is actually a federation of more than 800 state and local associations with a combined total of 235,000 members - explain to the media and the home-buying market that while the downturn is creating a negative effect, not all local markets are in such decline as to make buying a new home foolish.

"You have a lot of consumers that are sitting on the sidelines and they don't know what to do," says Robert Pflieger, senior staff VP of NAHB public affairs. "That's a large part of the messaging that we're providing to our locals - that first and foremost, there is no national market. Each market is very different. For example, the California market is in much worse condition from a housing perspective than, say, some of the Texas markets."

NAHB's 22-member communications team is helping to convey that message. The team does not use outside PR agencies, but instead functions as its own kind of specialized agency. A prime directive of the team is extensive outreach to print, radio, and TV outlets around the country. It also provides talking points, e-mail newsletters, marketing materials, and other assistance to local chapters for their own outreach.

Although there are many trade publications devoted to housing - whether focused on design, construction, or mortgages - the NAHB mainly focuses its outreach on mainstream media. With cutbacks in news departments across the country, that outreach is becoming increasingly difficult, says Donna Reichle, staff VP of media and PR. Fewer journalists are covering the real estate market in-depth, and those that do may have recently been assigned to the beat simply because of the increased interest in understanding the housing environment.

"You have a whole number of reporters that are being called in off other beats that [don't have] the depth or experience," she says. "It's problematic because it affects the quality of reporting. We spend a lot of time getting reporters up to speed on the industry and then six, nine months later, the reporter is gone."

Blogs and other online sources of news are passing on a vast amount of information concerning the state of the housing market, but the NAHB mainly focuses its outreach on traditional outlets.

"We're so busy dealing with the mainstream media, that we put a very low priority on blogs," Reichle says. "Over the past year, in fact, we've seen a lot more people coming from new media and finding entr┼Że in traditional media. If you can get your message out in mainstream media, it's still the best bang for your buck."

To better ensure that the NAHB is regarded as a solid source of information and commentary, the public affairs team says that objective commentary from the association's economic team is crucial. This includes the widely reported forecasts of NAHB chief economist David Seiders.

In addition to media relations, the communications team has a production department that creates videos to communicate with its members, and produces home-building shows for channels like Discovery and HGTV. Public affairs outreach in support of NAHB-favored legislation is also extensive, seeking approval for such things as reform of the Federal Housing Administration.

Pflieger says housing is such a critical aspect of the economy that shoring up the market takes federal intervention on multiple levels.

"We are a significant piece of the GDP, and as such it is necessary to help stimulate the housing part of the economy to forestall the nation from sliding into recession," he says. "To put it a different way, it's necessary to implement legislation that might forestall deterioration in home values. Ultimately, that is what's going to stop this jam in liquidity in the marketplace."

At a glance

Company: National Association of Home Builders

President/CEO: Sandy J. Dunn

Washington, DC

Operating/Comms Budget: Undisclosed

Key Trade Titles: Major daily newspapers, Builder, National Mortgage News, Fine Homebuilding, Nation's Building News

Comms Team: Robert Pflieger, senior staff VP, NAHB public affairs; Jay Shackford, staff VP, public affairs; Donna Reichle, staff VP, media and PR; Cary Goldweber, staff VP, production group

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