For the past year, my fiancé and I have been renting a condo in a large and fairly new building in Washington, D.C. To keep residents informed of the various condo goings-on, the community manager distributes a weekly e-newsletter.

On occasion, we’ll get an unscheduled newsletter if there is an immediate issue or concern. Like the email we received at 8:18 p.m. on a recent Thursday, titled: Notice of Bedbug Sighting in Nearby Unit.

The email contained a short message referring to an attached notice and brochure and inviting recipients to “let me know if you have any questions.” Here’s the text of the email, with some of the building specifics removed:

Please be advised that bed bugs were reported in a nearby unit. That unit is scheduled for treatment by a pest control company tomorrow. Management will obtain information from that company as to the observations and level of infestation as well as recommendations for additional treatment in nearby units. Should treatment in your Unit be recommended, you will be contacted by Management for scheduling.

In the meantime, it is strongly recommended that you read the attached brochure, “Preventing and Getting Rid of Bed Bugs Safely” and inspect your unit for bed bugs according to the instructions.

Within the pest control industry, bed bugs are considered to be among the most insidious of pests and determining the origin of bed bugs in any given dwelling is nearly impossible due to their transient nature. While they are not known to transmit disease, their presence may cause a variety of negative physical health, mental health and economic consequences.

Community Management takes a very proactive and strategic approach to addressing the potential threat of bed bug infestation. Effective detection and elimination of bed bugs is a team effort; your cooperation is appreciated.

The attached brochure was published by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene but the information is equally appurtenant to residents in Washington, D.C.

At that moment, I had lots of questions, such as:

  • What does “nearby” mean? Are we talking next door or four doors down?
  • The attached guide says all units adjacent, above and below should be inspected. Does that mean we’ll get another notice tomorrow if we are, in fact, next to an infested unit?
  • Who tells someone that their bed could be infested with bugs just hours before bedtime?
  • OMG, are we going to have to move?

The dinner that I had just put on the table sat steaming while we took flashlights to every mattress seam, baseboard crack and couch cushion in the apartment. Though we found no evidence of bugs, my skin crawled all evening and felt suspiciously itchy all night.

And it turns out the whole thing was a false alarm. From the next day’s newsletter: “A resident reported seeing one bed bug in their unit this week… The exterminator reported to management that no evidence of bed bugs was found in the unit.”

It got me to thinking about how this situation could have been handled better, so people (me) would not lose their minds mere hours before lights out. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to communicate some potentially distressing information, balancing (1) the possibility that nothing is wrong and you are needlessly scaring people, and (2) the possibility that not informing people will make the suspected problem worse (bugs, bugs everywhere), I’d recommend:

  • Get the facts – preferably all of them, or as many as you can – before doing anything else. We were talking about one bug. From what I’ve heard and read, these guys don’t leave home without their extended families, so I’m convinced it was something else entirely.
  • Be clear and be thorough. Choose your words wisely, try to anticipate questions and provide clear and complete answers in your communications. (What time was the pest control company coming? When will you notify us of the results? WHAT DOES NEARBY MEAN?)
  • Be responsive. When you receive questions, respond in timely manner.
  • Offer reassurance. The above email told me that bed bugs bite, it’s nearly impossible to determine their origin, and they can make you sick and/or crazy. It did not ask recipients to remain calm or offer assurances that every step would be taken to eradicate an infestation, should one be detected. (“addressing the potential threat” is not “killing the bugs.”)
  • Follow-up when more information becomes available. Thankfully, the community manager got this one right.

Is your skin crawling? I’d love to hear about your experiences with questionable communications practices, or how you would have handled this situation. Leave a comment!

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