Without putting too fine a point on it, developers’ reputations have had a challenging year.
I’ve been to a few public meetings lately where they’ve been criticised. It’s always been like this, especially when people don’t want development in their areas.
But it feels like the volume and tone of criticism has changed over the last year, as a growing range of issues has hit the mainstream. Land banking, executive pay, leasehold concerns, viability assessments and worries about the green belt are all in the headlines.
The criticism is genuinely felt, even if in many cases it is misplaced, incorrect or spun. I was at a council meeting in Somerset recently where councillors and members of the public took turns to criticise a proposed development which would bring investment, jobs and excellent business space to the area. That the scheme was consulted on at length and supported by most councillors at the meeting would have been easily missed amidst the negative comments.
Locally, there’s a risk that this fuels an atmosphere of mistrust, making developers appear disconnected from the communities and potential customers they should be close to.
Those I’ve spoken to understand there’s an issue here. It’s not going to go away without a sustained and coordinated effort to position the sector as part of the solution to one of the country’s most urgent challenges.
Some of this is happening. Major housebuilders are producing excellent reports and position statements and there are case studies by the bucket load. With all that’s happened with housing over the last year, now’s an excellent time to build on this work (no pun intended).
Meeting the reputational challenge
At a time when the market is holding up and the sector is doing well financially, the situation could be different.
Some feel the abrasive approach that’s baked into the planning process creates a tick-box style of community engagement, where a focus on building strong relationships which benefits an organisation over many years is needed. This process is ready for a change. I’m looking forward to trying different approaches which demonstrate this.
Away from planning, it takes more than ‘shouting about success’ – which is often posed as a solution to reputational problems – to win support. Apart from anything else, turning up the volume is a bit rude and turns people off. Listening, saying the right things and building networks as part of a sustained strategy will stand more chance of success.
I haven’t covered the importance of internal communications, protocols and financial PR in this post. All need to be considered and integrated into these approaches. But the thoughts I’ve set out here could make a difference over time. I’d be interested to know what those who work in and with the sector, and those who deal with it, think. This is very much a ‘starter for 10’.
Be more confident: The industry has a good story to tell. Housing development brings benefits to communities, which are often highlighted but not explained in any depth. The West of England, where I work, is seeing new schools being delivered by housebuilders as part of excellent new schemes. At Cranbrook, near Exeter, providing a school up front was said to have sped up the rate of house building. It’s an excellent example of a ‘win-win’ situation that’s missing from the combative, vexed discussions about housing. There’s no reason why these real-life examples can’t be used more effectively to build support for a company in a local area. This is about more than case studies and media releases, important those these are. It’s about building advocacy and strong networks spanning from the grassroots to the top of an organisation.
Be accessible: Communicators often front tough discussions with stakeholders about issues facing the organisations they represent. It’s part of what we do. Communities are almost always more appreciative when the developer puts representatives forward to join the conversation, hear feedback and respond. Often, criticism is made when developers aren’t available to explain their position at public meetings. When this happens, they’re missing an opportunity to look stakeholders in the eye and answer the ‘why?’ question. The earlier these conversations happen, the better. Preparation for these conversations is a must and it isn’t without its challenges. But those who do it well will build trust along the way. It also helps to avoid the easy criticism that they ‘can’t be bothered’ to attend public discussions.
Same goes for digital: Across the board, developers’ digital tactics are not equipped to build relationships with their publics in the 21st century. Some still aren’t active, which is incredible. Many who are pump out drab, corporate content and links to their websites without engaging in conversations. There may be protocols in place that discourage staff from getting involved. There’s so much more that could be done here to develop a human, credible online presence. Some senior staff engage confidently, with Barratt’s Philip Barnes being a notable example (see below). In the south west, Cubex’s Gavin Bridge is another who uses social media platforms well. But there aren’t enough of them.
It would be great to see more staff at all levels confidently engage the public about their work. Given that most home searches are done online, understanding and engaging online communities is a no brainer. Communicators can provide the policies, training and guidance to enable this to happen. I think it would be a game-changer for those who committed time and investment to doing it right. If there are good examples where this is happening, I’d love to hear about them.
Be open: Organisations are porous and misinformation can spread at a bewildering pace. Critics use this to their advantage, often posting inaccurate and unchecked content online. Those who issue a ‘no comment’ or instruct lawyers to shut websites down are not going to address this problem. If you’re faced with this issue, get your story straight and out into the open on your own terms. Signpost people to the right content and share it with stakeholders so they can do the same. One good example of where transparency can help bust a few myths is with viability assessments. For those who are unaware, these technical documents contain information that explains the contribution a developer can make towards infrastructure and affordable housing provision. It’s a misunderstood process and the assessments are often only released in response to a Freedom of Information request, often without explanation or context. That ‘why?’ question is dangling in the air again…
This could be the year when we see viability assessments made public, so why wait for this to happen before explaining them? Use it as an opportunity to explain your position, before someone else does in a way you’re not going to like. After all, development is a risky business. A developer’s investment in land can be tied up for years. Market conditions change over time and it’s right to expect a decent return at the end of a long process. All of this can be explained clearly and in a way that people will understand, in my experience.
Are these thoughts realistic? Am I missing anything? I’d love to know what others think about this issue. If I get enough comments, I’ll write another post about the feedback.