Novitas Communications founder and CEO Michelle Balch Lyng takes a break with children Andrew and Caroline. (Photo courtesy Michelle Balch Lyng)

Brief bio:

  • Founder and CEO of Denver-based Novitas Communications, since 2008. 

  • Novitas won this year's national Gold Stevie Award as the communications or public relations campaign of the year, for its work with the Colorado Apartment Association.

  • Earlier in her career served as a business coalitions and events manager for the U.S. House.

  • Holds a bachelor's degree in business from Illinois Wesleyan University.

Colorado Politics: Give us some Econ 101 — Cliff Notes version — on the problems you see with enacting laws capping rent, as some elected officials have proposed in Colorado. What about Gov. Polis’ COVID-related order temporarily blocking evictions? What has the experience been in other cities across the country that have imposed rent controls, eviction freezes or related measures?

Michelle Balch Lyng: I own rental properties, so I have a dog in this fight. When policy makers make broad, sweeping policies, some people will be unfairly hurt. Eviction moratoriums are a great example of this. While the governor said that rental housing providers could evict those who were exhibiting bad behavior, in practice that wasn’t always the case because courts weren’t open. In other instances, some residents who hadn’t paid their rent in January and February were due to be evicted in March, but were swept up in the eviction moratorium and now haven’t paid rent in six months. That surely isn’t the governor’s intent, but that is the reality. I’m a small-time landlord, and about 55% of the rental units in the Denver metro area are owned by people like me. What are small landlords supposed to do when someone doesn’t pay rent for six months or more? That presents a real foreclosure risk, which would reduce the rental housing available, exacerbating Colorado’s affordable-housing crisis. There are a lot of unintended consequences baked into well-meaning legislation.

The same goes for rent control. I can’t think of another economic policy that has been more widely panned by economists. Rental properties are businesses. If the numbers don’t work, people cannot afford to rent their properties. If I can’t afford to raise rents after I renovate a property because of rent control, I’m not going to improve my property. Rent control leads to fewer available properties, blight, and more. It’s just not a viable solution for Colorado’s housing issues. See San Francisco.

CP: Why in your view have housing costs been soaring along the Front Range for years now — both for rentals and real estate — and how can this most essential of human needs be put within reach for more Coloradans?

Lyng: Fundamentally, this is a supply-and-demand issue. We don’t have enough properties for those who need them and that’s not counting any kind of COVID-19-related flight from top-tier cities, like New York. In addition, the cost of developing and maintaining property has skyrocketed. Not only is land more expensive, but the cost to build is, too. At one of my properties, the property taxes have nearly doubled after the city cited a property value that would make Zillow Zestimates blush.

Finally, a recent study showed that government regulations compose nearly one-third of rental costs nationwide. We have to stop regulating people out of housing opportunities.

Solutions to this include reducing the cost of building, encouraging more building, and looking at housing as a community problem, not just a “landlord” problem.

CP: Toot your horn: You recently won a Gold Stevie Award for the communications / public relations campaign of the year. Here’s your chance to tell us about the campaign and the award — and why we should be impressed.

Lyng: It’s actually our fourth national award this year for a variety of campaigns executed in 2019. This one is fun because we competed against some of the biggest names in business and in PR. The award was created to reward good actors after a spate of high-profile ethical lapses in the U.S. business community. Other companies that have won Stevies include Apple, Ford, Proctor & Gamble and more, so we’re honored to be in great company.

Awards in which we’re given the opportunity to compete against larger firms and win show that growing firms also can produce excellent work. Small and mid-sized agencies can be just as well-resourced as large agencies and often are scrappier, more engaged and more innovative.

The crux of this campaign was to educate Coloradans about the effect that a policy like rent control would have on the people in Colorado. While we won the award for our public relations and digital efforts, a big part of the campaign was supporting lobbyists as they worked their magic on legislation last year. The Colorado Apartment Association, Axiom, and Brownstein were a big(ger) part of the process and deserve much praise as well.

CP: A big part of your firm’s PR portfolio involves public policy. Tell us a little about your background and how it launched you onto your current trajectory.

Lyng: I started in PR through my college work study program at the university’s communications office. My mom was a single parent and a flight attendant, and without work study, I could not have attended college. I, then, worked on Edelman’s consumer technology team. I moved to Colorado for the first time in 2002 where I worked in the district office of a U.S. congressman. Through having to look constituents in the eye and talk about policy, I learned how legislation could have a profound impact on people — for better or worse. Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to jump back into communications and ended up at APCO Worldwide, where I worked in litigation communication and issue management for Fortune 100 companies in health care, oil and gas, technology, transportation, and Walmart (it’s kind of its own industry, right?). At that time, this political campaign-style of PR was in its infancy and APCO was really a pioneer.

When I moved to Manhattan after I married my husband, I worked for Robinson Lerer, & Montgomery, now part of Finsbury, where I worked on marketing communications, crisis communications, and corporate communications clients in the health insurance and banking and financial services industries. If APCO encouraged expansive thinking, RLM taught me discipline.

It’s through these experiences that I acquired a passion for fighting for people in the public policy arena, and can simultaneously drive out-of-the-box thinking and disciplined work. Our work highlighting the public policy impact to people is the work I’m most proud of.

CP: Let’s get your reading of Colorado’s political temperature these days following the Democratic rout of Republicans in the November 2018 election? Is the state’s largest voting bloc, unaffiliateds, still swingable, or did 2018 represent a watershed shift to the left for the Centennial State?

Lyng: Colorado is still a purple state — we saw that in the ballot initiatives last year. As far as the 2018 campaign, remember, Gov. Jared Polis created the infrastructure to support Democratic candidates in Colorado 15 to 20 years ago, and he knows how all the levers work and he worked them to his advantage. The turnout effort alone was incredible. But, if Massachusetts can have a Republican governor, so can Colorado. That said, Republicans have a lot of work ahead and soul searching to do.

CP: However one feels about the COVID-19 lockdown from which Colorado is now starting to emerge, even those who implemented it at both the state and local levels concede its execution was far from perfect. What do you think were some of the communications fumbles by state and local governments, and how should they have been handled differently?

Lyng: Leaders have to be comfortable making decisions with incomplete information and that’s never been truer than now. It would be easy for me to Monday-morning quarterback this situation — and it would be unfair.

We’ve worked on some of the country’s most visible crises — the banking crisis, the Florida International University bridge collapse, repowering Puerto Rico after hurricanes, and the oil and gas wars in Colorado. Those crises typically had an ebb and flow — maybe a few days of intense work, and a few days to breathe. This was six weeks of nearly around-the-clock crises and the exhaustion was at a cellular level.

The fog of war causes errors in execution and judgment. I firmly believe that our leaders at every level of government did the best they could with the limited and conflicting information they had.

The greatest frustrations that I saw were simply in the uneven application of the COVID-19 restrictions — for example, which businesses are essential, which are not? Who decides that? Pretty sure all businesses are essential to the people who own them. Then, there were conflicting requirements across jurisdictions. The answers to a lot of these issues are greater internal communication among policymakers and more input from stakeholders.

CP: What advice do you give to up-and-comers in your industry who want to break into political PR — whether on campaigns, as communications staffers, messaging strategists, etc.?

Lyng: First, everyone wants to be a strategist, but what the world needs is more people who excel at execution, so be a master at execution. The best strategists also understand execution inside and out.

I’d also recommend that up-and-comers go to work for a major PR agency as the experience is second to none. Don’t be afraid of hard work and be passionate about excellence. When I worked at large PR agencies, I frequently worked 12-hour (or longer) days. While it could have been easy to be frustrated by working 50% more than my peers, it also meant that I was becoming better at my job 50% faster and I was given greater responsibility sooner.

Don’t forget to take a chance on people, be more inclusive, bring more people to the table — especially the underdogs. Your work will be better for it. There are so many people who took a chance on me and, to them, I’m eternally grateful.

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