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Duncan Hopwood

Communications Insights from a Diverse New Property World

January 16, 2020

A sea of suits. Sara Bailey recollects the view from a hilltop on her first visit to MIPIM, the London property world’s home-from-home on the French Riviera.

Things have moved on but by consensus, diversity and inclusion are nowhere near changing the industry as much as they might.

How do you make the old-school real estate scene more diverse and inclusive?

Real Estate PR and Communications

To get some insight, I head to the offices of law firm Trowers and Hamlins where Sara is head of real estate and a panel of speakers are set to share their experiences. It’s a quick step from my location in Finsbury Square, always handy in rush hour, and it turns out that familiar ideas from my sector, PR and communications, have a big role to play.

Some of the key PR and comms themes I hear during the evening are the importance of image, using hard facts to make your case, walking the talk, visibility, impetus (positive and negative), internal communications and measurement.

Estates Gazette

Among the guests is Sam Clary, editor of EG, and an influential proponent of inclusion, particularly for women in property. She’s someone who knows how to communicate. She’s also cycled the 700-odd miles from London to Cannes for MIPIM more than ten times.

Panelist Kelly Canterford reflects on how talented schoolfriends missed opportunities because they didn’t look right. We need the industry to look different to attract diversity, says the programme manager for Changing the Face of Property, an initiative of a dozen large real estate companies.

Comms Insight: Image can work against you as an individual if you don’t fit a required stereotype but changing the image of a business or industry can be a force for good if it changes people’s perceptions in a positive way.

Phil Clark remembers the sterile, myopic old industry he stumbled into. Now head of public and private equity real assets at AEGON, he welcomes research that proves a diverse workforce is a more productive one.

Comms Insight: While we need to beware of dry numbers that cause people to glaze over, it’s always good to have hard facts to back up our claims.

Lisa Ravenscroft, chief marketing officer at Mount Anvil, says making true on the company’s hopes and dreams about diversity are a major priority for the firm.

Comms Insight:That reminds me of a recent London Chamber event that prompted my blog on the importance of Walking the Talk.

Jackie Esimaje-Heath describes herself as an outlier and an anomaly. The regional development director of L and Q says its about being visible. She is not afraid to shine a beacon to other anomalies who might otherwise think there was no room for someone like them in the property world.

Comms Insight:It makes me think about how many businesses and business people I’ve met who are nervous about being seen, particularly about being seen to be different, and are afraid to challenge perceptions. Yet it’s plain to see that some of the most successful PR stories are those where someone has been ready to rock the boat while being disruptive is now a badge of honour. Speaking truth to power, as it’s described in the seminar, is a comms challenge. Frame your point well, and you are more likely to initiate a knee-jerk kick back.

The event is the first in a new Trowers initiative called Routes to Real Estate. Sara highlights three communications initiatives that are in their different ways meeting the challenge. There is the British Property Federation’s Redefining Real Estate campaign, Reading University’s Pathways to Property and Land Aid, a movement to get homeless people into work. (Trowers is a founding partner.)

Lisa highlights the importance of being clear about success criteria for a project to avoid the temptation for senior people to hand the job to a mate, especially when there’s a deadline. This is as relevant for marketing campaigns as it is for HR projects. Her employer now uses an independent scoring system to evaluate every appointment. It slows down the process but she says it puts the best applicant in the job, which beats expediency.

Wellbeing

While Jackie’s organisation isn’t that scientific about filling each position, it does hold a lot of store in its survey of employee wellbeing which, because it has a 2,000-strong workforce, enables it to drill down to identify potential misgivings among employee categories.

She confesses she’s not a fan of positive discrimination. She doesn’t want people looking at her or other mould-breakers in positions of power and concluding they got where they are for reasons other than pure competence. Phil agrees it has alienated people. Comms Insight: It’s an example of where initiatives with the best intentions can become victims of a reputational backlash, the kind of PR disaster where negative impetus shifts the whole dialogue away from the intention.

Instead of positive discrimination, Phil says it’s about communications, visualisation of what’s out there.

Comms Insight: How do we change the perceptions of people around the City looking in and thinking they can’t be part of it? That’s a classic PR challenge.

Sara sees positive discrimination and quotas as changing the optics without necessarily changing the behaviour of people who will continue to tolerate groupthink.

What about if you bring in diversity of thought and no one listens? Phil points out the importance of giving everyone their say, not just those who shout loudest. He makes a point of giving everyone the opportunity to speak, even if it means arranging one-to-one meetings. It’s often the quiet ones who have the best answers, he reckons. Comms Insight: That’s worth bearing in mind when we’re running stakeholder engagement and public consultation programmes, I reckon.

We have seen some progress on diversity and inclusion, says Phil. It seems there is real impetus now.

Comms Insight: When positive impetus gains traction, you’re on a roll. Nothing succeeds like success.