WESLEY CHAPEL — John Heagney hoists the video camera and stops at the model home's glass front door.
"I have to try to keep my reflection out," he says as he figures out a good angle to begin his video tour of D.R. Horton's Wisteria model in Seven Oaks.
For 30 years, Heagney, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, has owned one of the area's well known real-estate public relations firms, John Heagney Inc. During the boom times, he and his staff of four represented big-name clients, including national builders and master planned communities such as Trinity, Westchase and Pulte Homes and Lennar.
News releases with Heagney listed as a contact flooded reporters' in boxes. Lately more of his e-mails are office-friendly jokes, and he answers his own phone.
"When the crash came, it was like someone just switched off a light bulb," Heagney said. "In 2008, we were doing really well. We were headed for a record-breaking year. In September, it was like 'my God, what happened?' "
Now with the housing market hobbled and use of traditional media among house hunters declining, the 60-year-old Heagney is reinventing himself. Armed with a video camera, he and his wife, Linda, are traipsing through model homes making video tours that appear on their website, mousethruthehouse.com. Former staffers are still used but they work as freelancers so the company can better respond to the ebb and flow of business.
"This downturn really presented me with an opportunity to develop an idea I had been germinating a couple of years," said Heagney, whose firm is based in Holiday. "As use of the Internet became stronger, I realized when people shop for a new home, they no longer hop in the car and go to a model center at first. That's a lot of unnecessary legwork."
The site features more than 250 complete video walking tours of model homes from about three dozen builders in six central Florida counties including Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Lake and Orange.
Videos of homes for sale are nothing new, but Heagney offers things others don't. He shows off every room, not just the main ones. He pokes the camera in closets, storage areas and bathrooms.
"You won't see a toilet on any other site," he joked.
He also offers close-ups of detail work such as crown molding and premium appliances.
The videos, which can be "cloned" to communities where the builder offers the floor plan but no model, are offered free to builders though they can pay $360 a year for premium packages that provide call-outs of home features, a map and directions to the model and a link to the builder's website.
Use of the site costs potential home buyers nothing. They don't even have to register. Five clicks and they're touring a home in their preferred geographic area and price range.
Heagney even offers free ads to charities.
So how does he plan to make money?
The same way newspapers do, by selling advertising.
He hopes to eventually sell ads for businesses that target home buyers such as maid service, furniture and appliance stores, fitness centers.
"We can target an ad to a particular community," he said.
Heagney's not alone in trying to creatively survive the recession.
Across the PR world, communications folks are looking for new ways to do business.
"Gone are the days of the big advertising agency," said Tara Hustedde, president of Land O'Lakes-based Pure Public Relations & Marketing and president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Marketing Association. "I think we all have to be nimble and quick on our feet and be hungry to make our clients happy."
Fortunately for Heagney, his client list includes more than just home builders. He also works for medical firms, an area that has weathered the recession well.
"That combination has helped keep us afloat," he said.
Meanwhile, he hopes to use the free service to cultivate relationships with builders so he can be in a better position when things improve.
"I guess I'm always working the angles, always looking for opportunities," he said. "I still think newspapers and television are the way to go (to reach an audience) but I see this as an opportunity to help the public relations part of the business when that starts rebounding. We're seeing some signs of that now."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.