Categories
Blog Property PR

Lessons from HS1/2

Selling the vision of major projects: Do it well or be demonised.

At the relaunch of the property and construction group within PRCA (the Public Relations and Communications Association), we’re hearing from the horse’s mouth about what went right with the public consultation and engagement on HS1 and what went oh so badly wrong on HS2.

Quick disclaimer: I’ve used the title of the presentation for this piece but I wouldn’t describe public consultation and stakeholder engagement as ‘selling’ exercises. That suggests one-way traffic and propaganda for commercial gain. On the contrary, done well, these kinds of projects should be about involvement and engagement, especially since we now have an armoury of digital communications channels that enable this on a scale never before possible.

Our speaker is Ben Ruse, former media director for HS1 who went on to be lead spokesperson for HS2 until 2013.

His opening shot is that grand projects automatically attract public disapproval. In the Olympic Park area, London 2012 had a 50 per cent approval rating before the games which soared to 75 per4 cent around Super Saturday only to slip back to pre-game levels. Nationwide – let alone in the areas affected – HS2 has been polling 35 per cent in favour at best.

Does it matter?

How much does that matter? Ben points out that the House of Commons typically returns enormous majorities in favour of big infrastructure projects such as HS2. Ultimately, government makes the decisions.

The challenge to win public support is on a very human level. Good communications cannot meet this test alone. The other ‘c’ word, compensation, can, or could if the UK way of delivering it wasn’t so fiendishly complex and built on a desire by authorities to limit the amount paid out to the minimum possible. By contrast, France gives three times more generously and, as Ben points out, has built two airports in the time it has taken the UK to make a decision to build one runway.

So money gets the job done but good PR helps. And the PR for HS1 was very good. The decision to redevelop St Pancras and build the high speed connection to the Chunnel delivered a generation of disruption for people living around the site.

Eyes on the prize

The project spent money buying local people double glazing to keep out the noise and tumble dryers so that their washing wasn’t coated in dust but PR delivered something bigger – letting people know what the ‘prize’ would be in regeneration. A lot of the campaign’s success was built on being visible locally. The team set up a Portakabin on site as a marketing suite. It worked at being visible in the local press, in classrooms (to enlist young ambassadors to persuade their parents of the benefits) and at local events.

Rather than those sterile foam board displays in village halls and council offices – we’ve all been there – take a stall at the village fete. Be in context and take advantage of the power of existing local events and groups to deliver an audience. The HS1 PR team were creative in other ways too. One standout example was a play they commissioned by a Radio 4 playwright that told the story of Sir John Betjeman’s struggle to save St Pancras from demolition.

Monstrous

So that’s what success looks like. HS2 by comparison has become the monster for all Camden’s ills. It seems a case of too little too late on the communications front, and the opposition to the scheme not just in London but all along the route – and politically – is mounting. Those who want to deliver big projects should realise at the outset that delays because of local opposition cost huge amounts of money.

I asked a question based on Hopwood PR’s experience working with the URC for Leicester some years ago. Here we found a clear generational gap between the Grumpy Old Men generation and a younger audience who were readier to believe and embrace the opportunities. We identified that one of the major obstacles to winning the hearts and minds of the over 40s was to convince them that the URC would deliver and it would be good. Like many cities, Leicester had been brutalised in the 1960s and its people promised wonderful new things by successive councils that never materialised, such as a monorail. Their scepticism was understandable. One of the ways we challenged this was to create two regeneration walking tours with illustrated leaflets enabling people to visit the sites, see the first buildings being delivered and get a feel for what else could be on the way. A shiny new shopping centre and Grade A offices near the rail station were duly delivered before 2008 brought things grindingly to a halt. Leicester still has 12 miles of undeveloped waterway, though there have been moves to revive the plans recently.

Bear in mind this was long enough ago that silver surfers were the exception rather than the norm so social media wasn’t a channel we could use with them, but Facebook – a burgeoning force at the time – was. Not only did the channel connect us to an enthusiastic younger audience it also allowed us to demonstrate to stakeholders and the older generation that we were engaging with young people. We did this simply by sending a news release and screen shot to the local newspaper.

The answer to my question then is to use a balance of online and conventional media but remember that audience profiles change over time so adapt your use of channels.

Be careful too. In one of his HS roles, Ben had taken the reasonable premise that the project should be given a human face and made the mistake of making publicly available a Twitter profile for himself. It resulted in the stream from hell. So beware open forums that a few vocal opponents can take over and occupy. Instead keep your online activity short lived. Connect it to an event or something tangible with a beginning and end. Keep it moving to avoid hosting a festering hard-core group.

Lessons in brief

• Engage, don’t sell
• Expect opposition for big projects
• Good communications can’t do it all
• Compensate early and generously
• Give practical help to communities
• Tell the big regeneration story well
• Go where your audience is
• Use a mix of online and offline channels
• Understand the generation gap
• Keep online activity short-lived

Categories
Blog Property PR

Building a better London

London has a bright future with its formidable business community, culture, sport and nightlife.

Angus Dodd, chief executive of Quintain, delivers an upbeat forecast for the capital in post Brexit Britain. He heads up the organisation that is delivering regeneration on a grand scale at Wembley Park with 1,000 homes built and 4,850 to come around the national stadium. Aimed at a more prosperous resident than the norm for Brent – one of the poorest boroughs in London – he is confident demand for homes will remain intense despite uncertainty. Brexit is only one incarnation of this. As the breakfast presentation draws to a close, a few New England villagers are the first Americans to cast their votes in the Trump v Clinton Presidential race. There are elections on the way in France and Germany, as well as a referendum on the Italian constitution in the offing.

Switching back to Brexit, there remains uncertainty about what Brexit means. “We are in the eye of the storm, and we need to move out of it.” International investment in real estate, services and other parts of the economy is vital, so Angus likes the London Mayor’s hashtag #LondonIsOpen.

Placemaking

Quintain wants to contribute to building a better London. His fear is that they will not deliver this aim, that Wembley Park will be commercially successful but have no longevity. After all, many new places that were unveiled in the 1960s and afterwards with a rosy future have turned into sink estates. Angus reads a quote from a former Thamesmead resident. “I grew up on Thamesmead as a child it was great because of the open spaces but as a teenager it became a hell hole due to its dark passages where gangs congregated.”

Quintain’s vision for Wembley Park in 2024 is the opposite, a flourishing community of nearly 20,000 people living in a place that stands the test of time. The 85-acre site includes Wembley Arena and 268,000 sq ft of retail space with 1 million sq ft more to come, but Quintain has also invested in the spaces between, not imposing a lifestyle on residents but allowing the community room to grow its own networks and activities. “Not just student flats for grown-ups.”

The power of regeneration is clear in Wembley and in places such as Kings Cross and Nine Elms. Yet there remains a huge housing shortage in London with 10 million people forecast to be living here by 2023. “Brexit is not going to change that.”

Partnerships

How do you deliver on place-making and regeneration? The answer is partnerships, according to Angus, including with the local community, but they do not always get it right. It is the week after Bonfire Night, and they have sponsored a spectacular firework display for residents which has resulted in glowing comments on Twitter, which he monitors via a daily digest. On other days, it is painful to read, as in the period after Pizza-gate, a pizza festival that ran out of pizza. In disadvantaged Brent, the most ethnically diverse of the London boroughs, engagement with local people means running events that appeal to the whole community, not just the relatively wealthy people who can afford to live on the site.

Good relations are also crucial with local and central government (Brent council has a civic centre on the site), TfL and the FA, who own the stadium.

Alongside this, Quintain is forging partnerships with the building, design and investment communities and working with them to achieve its objectives.

Hopwood PR’s work on Green Street in the Meadows brought together all these strands, supporting our developer client to deliver an eco-homes scheme that is both transformational and part of the neighbourhood (and commercially successful).

PRS is the future

Angus regrets that the UK relies almost entirely on the private sector for housing because property developers need to make a profit but building homes to sell doesn’t solve the housing problem. There is a clear choice as he sees it between PRS or forcing millennials out of London. He points out it would take a very frugal person eight years on a typical London salary to amass the £80,000 deposit needed for an average London home. By contrast, a couple could move in to an upmarket home on Wembley Park (15 minutes from where we are in CBRE’s W1 headquarters) for £20,000 a year, £10k each. “I’m convinced this is the future.”

Five a day

Mark Collins, Chairman of Residential at CBRE, introduces Angus by way of listing five of the London Chamber’s 20 key points on which it is lobbying the Mayor.

  1. More affordable homes to rent in all new developments (the Chamber is cautious about government prioritising home ownership because of the effect that would have on the Build to Rent sector (B2R).
  2. Support SME builders
  3. Bring forward availability of small plots of land
  4. Make the most of space (a call for release of ‘green belt’ land for development that the Mayor has signalled he won’t countenance)
  5. Ensuring London has the skills it needs (more devolution to the capital so it has power to manage its own future)

He highlights concern among businesses about EU nationals already working here and the risk that post-Brexit immigration policy might affect their status and stop businesses in London importing the best international talent. Failure to invest in UK construction training 15 years ago has led to a chronic shortage of UK skilled labour. This can be addressed over the next five years (Hopwood PR client DTL has been pressing and putting forward ideas for this with the help of some creative media relations from us) but there will be a lag time. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of construction workers in London are foreign compared with 50 per cent nationally.