Houston Housing Authority- Housing Choice Voucher Program

The Challenge

The Houston Housing Authority (HHA) is a public housing agency and unit of government, affiliated and performing essential governmental functions of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The agency operates and manages its housing developments to provide quality, safe, sanitary and affordable housing to low income, elderly and disabled individuals and families and also maintains contractual arrangements with HUD to manage and operate programs funded with development grants, federal monies and rental income.

HHA administers the Housing Choice Voucher Program which houses more than 17,000 families through the program. The authority was notified by HUD that they must rescind vouchers from individuals whose selected units have not yet passed the required safety inspection and will be unable to issue vouchers for the remainder of the year because of a shortfall in federal funding.

For HHA, the only option was to follow HUD’s recommendation to rescind about 900 vouchers from those without housing placements. HHA was among other housing authorities across the nation rescinding vouchers in response to funding cuts, but this is the first time a situation like this had occurred in Houston.

The Approach

Etched recommended HHA take a proactive, vocal, and aggressive media relations approach to inform the Houston community about the national voucher shortfall and explain how it affects the Houston community. This recommendation aimed to achieve the following:

Diffuse the potential for negative coverage of HHA by proactively serving as the primary information resource to the media and public

Build credibility through transparent social responses and dedicated phone line and email address to service client needs

Control the narrative to maximize share of voice and drive positive tone and sentiment through media relations

Etched met and exceeded client objectives through the following primary tactics:

Media Relations: Proactively secured targeted and high-profile interview opportunities with select reporters to position HHA as a dedicated and committed organization that in spite of the shortfall which was beyond its control remains true to its commitment to improving housing options for Houstonians through the following:

  • Immediately crafted and distributed an informative news release outlining clear description and understanding of the situation
  • Coached and trained President and CEO for tough media interviews with negatively slanted questions to prepare message delivery specific to this instance
  • Strategically crafted pointed key messages, interview overview documents and public statements to guide all interviews to ensure balanced and fair reporting
  • Served as a liaison between HHA and local and national media to manage media requests, coordinate interviews and analyze and measure every news article and segment
  • Provided consistent updates to media

Internal Communication:

  • Distributed consistent messaging internally to ensure employees were equipped with accurate knowledge to stay aligned on situation as well as answer questions with external parties such as HHA residents, community partner organizations and in every day conversation (not inclusive of media)
  • Set up a dedicated phone line and drafted script for live and recorded calls to manage all questions and concerns regarding rescinded vouchers
  • Craft and distribute letter to all HHA employees informing them of the situation and stressing the seriousness and importance of transferring all media and elected official requests to Etched

Social Media:

  • Extensively monitored online conversations on social media and digital news sites to keep a pulse on public sentiment, prepared responses and/or comments to post when and where necessary to mitigate the potential of fake or slanted news
  • Implemented a formal response and follow-up program for highly negative, inaccurate and defamatory comments directing them to the dedicated phone line and email address
  • Shared positive to neutral articles and other valuable content on owned social networks to push correct information and firmly reiterate messaging

The Etched Affect

Immediate action was required. Within 24 hours of receiving notice of the HUD shortfall Etched researched, brainstormed, planned and executed the crisis prevention plan.

Etched was able to control the narrative through the implemented tactics and generate 95% positive to neutral tone and sentiment in national, regional and local news placements that reached a national audience of more than 36 million.

The internal and external communication executions allowed HHA to provide clear and direct messaging to their numerous stakeholders, organization members, staff and clients.

Client messages were fairly and clearly represented in all breaking news stories and there was flexibility of spokespersons’ interview availability to ensure the most informed spokespersons’ conducted interviews. Spokespersons’ had knowledge to credibly manage media interviews and respond to touch reporter questions

There was much social chatter that resulted as reactions from the breaking news stories. The weeks following the announcement generated 90 percent neutral tone and sentiment for social media posts that generated reach of more than 6 million on Twitter and Facebook.