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.
“What is PR?” It’s one of the most common questions people in our sector get asked. Close behind is: “What’s the difference between Public Relations and marketing?” As it turns out, the answer to the second question sheds much light on the first.
Firms who back up their property brand marketing by walking the talk will be more successful than those who peddle empty promises.
How do you build your firm’s PR profile, raise awareness and develop a reputation in a sector where you have yet to make your mark? Or how about if you do have a track record in a sector but your customers won’t let you talk about the projects you’ve done for them?
‘Say what you like about Mussolini but at least the trains ran on time’ was a sardonic remark, popular in the days of British Rail. The monolithic network that ran the tracks, trains and everything else in the 1970s had a reputation for inefficiency and grim catering that was grist to the mill for the dark sarcasm and self loathing that characterised Britain when a French politician coined the phrase ‘sick man of Europe’.
Non-PC jokes may be frowned upon in the 21st Century, but discontent with the rail network lingers on. Few sectors attract as much public criticism as the railways. Train companies, notably South Western, are whipping boys for the public, politicians and media. Cancelled trips and overcrowded carriages create visual manna for those who see the privatised railways as symbolic of how corporations exploit consumers. And voters’ memories are getting shorter, allowing calls for re-nationalisation to be taken seriously.
[quote Author=”Stuart Kirkwood, Network Rail” Quote=”The UK’s rail network is a victim of its own success. Passenger journeys have doubled since privatisation.”][/quote]
Poor communication has always been an issue, from keeping passengers in the dark about a delay to ignoring the complaints of customers. Soon, there will be a new PR challenge, as Network Rail plans to ramp up the redevelopment of property it owns across the country.
In one sense, the UK’s rail system has been a victim of its own success, an idea that Stuart Kirkwood, Development Director of Network Rail, pitched to an audience of real estate professionals recently. The number of rail journeys has doubled since privatisation, creating enormous strain on a largely Victorian infrastructure.
What did the Victorians ever do for us? Network Rail maintains 40,000 bridges and viaducts, most of which were built in the days of Empire. The rail industry is wrestling with legacy issues. For example, the train companies – not Network Rail – are responsible for operating most regional stations yet their relatively short-term contracts are incompatible with the long-term investment those stations require.
What is required is more Victorian-style ambition with visionary projects that can be built into a narrative of regeneration. And the impetus to make that happen may come from a surprising source, the UK’s housing shortage.
Network Rail has always redeveloped land, but it now has a statutory duty to free up more of the real estate it owns and deliver thousands of homes by 2020. Until now, the government has been generous in its support of Network Rail, Stuart Kirkwood says, conscious of the enormous strain on the network and the benefits of shifting people off the roads. But economic constraints are likely to choke future funding. So here is an elegant solution – fill Network Rail’s coffers by selling off land and make a substantial contribution to building more homes, a key government target, while you’re at it.
And here comes the vision. Not content with selling off redundant land or entering into joint ventures with developers, Stuart Kirkwood and colleagues are thinking big. What about all the space above the network? They are considering building on rafts above tracks and on top of stations. This would be challenging enough, but it would have to be done without disrupting the network.
Even with the more routine redevelopment projects envisaged by the network, good communications will be important to bring local people around and to win planning consent. The stakes will be higher when ideas about futuristic towns on train tracks or redevelopment of beloved Victorian stations move closer to reality.
Though he no doubt travels first class and free, Stuart Kirkwood at least glimpses the pain of fellow travellers as he commutes daily on the West Coast Mainline, the busiest in Europe. The stakes are high, but the opportunities are exciting. Network Rail will need Victorian-style chutzpah and engineering prowess to make these things happen. It will also need to cast off the rail sector’s historic attitude to public relations, work on developing empathy, walk the talk and communicate brilliantly.
Hopwood, the property PR and marketing specialist, has launched three new websites for property sector clients.
All three are built on our model of making web sites the centre of communications. With content tailored for search engines, all three feature lively news sections. These attract valuable inbound links from the media, social media and client e newsletters.
We produce all of the content for our clients – including regular news pieces – as well as taking care of the design and development with our in-house graphic designers and tech experts.
So when you use Hopwood’s all round team for your next web overhaul, content isn’t an afterthought – it’s a crucial part of the process.
See our new work for yourself.
Abintra, flexible workplace specialists: www.abintra-consulting.co.uk
MPG, international construction consultancy: www.mpgqs.com
NWL Legal, real estate lawyers: www.nwl-legal.com
Here’s a remarkable forecast. By 2020, Millennials* will make up half of the global workforce, and four out of ten of them will be independent operators, mostly by their own choice.
This is good news for WeWork, whose new take on workspace is designed to appeal to an entrepreneurial generation less concerned with ownership and more interested in collaborative working and sharing.
At London Chamber’s latest property event, WeWork’s Director of European Transactions, Mary Finnigan, charted the spectacular rise of the brand since its formation in 2010 and set out its global ambition.
WeWork is already the third biggest start up by valuation in the US (after Uber and Airbnb).
[quote Author=”WeWork Mission” Quote=”Where people make a life, not just a living”][/quote]
Its strategy in Europe is to open more WeWorks in major cities, and it is also looking at bringing its residential offer, WeLive, across the pond after successful rollouts in New York and Washington.
The WeWork mission is to create a world where people make a life, not just a living. This drives the way it designs buildings (it has architecture and engineering in house) and the kinds of services that attract new users.
There are 150,000 of those WeWork members in 140 locations in 45 cities and 15 countries, enjoying an extraordinary variety of benefits, ranging from an app that lets them communicate with fellow members and use WeWork facilities all over the world to being able to bring their dog to work. The latter harks back to the brand’s early days when it was looking for ways to lure home workers to take its spaces. There is beer on tap, and once a year members get together for a US-style “school” summer camp, a kind of mini Glastonbury featuring talks, yoga, and live bands.
Halloween parties, “lunch and learn” talks, food and wine, and visiting hairdressers and manicurists add to the experience. But perhaps one of the biggest attractions for sole traders and micro businesses is the opportunity to find new customers and clients. Mary tells us 60 per cent of members do business with each other.
Not that all WeWork licensees are micros. Deloitte has a major presence in one building, as do Centrica and Microsoft in other buildings, and there are other such “enterprise members” in the network.
With almost all WeWork UK locations in London, it has just opened a second building in Manchester. I wondered if there would ever be an opportunity for entrepreneurs in second tier cities such as Leicester to have the WeWork experience without moving away. Fortunately, I had the chance to ask Mary exactly that. While the focus currently is on major cities in Europe, she thought they would look beyond the metropolises in future, as they have done in the US.
The Brexit vote and resulting economic and political uncertainty have not dimmed demand for WeWork’s London locations. That suggests young entrepreneurs in the capital are more confident than their older, more established counterparts. However, the UK’s impending departure from the EU has encouraged WeWork to look to place more attention on mainland Europe.
Urbanisation and the resulting need to share space is changing the world of work. That is clear not only in WeWork’s business model and philosophy but also in the technology it employs to create work spaces. WeWork uses 3D laser scanning to help plan building layouts, and it processes metadata from its existing buildings to help it design interiors in new ones in intricate detail, from deciding where to locate a coffee machine to which way an armchair should face in a collaborative space.
Mary Finnigan was guest speaker at the Property and Construction Breakfast Club of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. CBRE’s Chairman of Residential, Mark Collins, highlighted the Chamber’s campaign to urge policymakers to get London “mega city-ready”. Mark, who also chairs the Chamber’s property section, hosted the event at CBRE’s Henrietta Place offices off Oxford Street. Speaking to the audience of property professionals, he outlined the Chamber’s Capital Matters report. This identifies the big issues of housing, transport and the skills gap as the major obstacles to the capital’s success as it approaches a population of 10 million. He urges politicians to keep their eye on the ball of these major issues and avoid focusing all their attention on Brexit. The Chamber’s property and construction policy focuses on the need to address the looming spectre of a post-Brexit skilled labour shortage and calls for more support for small builders in the form of better access to finance and simplified planning regulations.
* Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are those born approximately between the early 1980s and early 2000s. As they are the children of Baby Boomers, there are many of them, which is also why they are sometimes called Echo Boomers. For more about Millennials, see
‘Present tense, future conditional, past perfect’
Much of what we do in PR is about creating compelling information, the kind that makes you feel something or want to do something. In our work in the property sector, we employ strategies to build reputations and to persuade stakeholders of the merits of our clients’ developments.
That is ethical and legitimate (and professionally managed, of course) but when it comes to the bigger picture, other kinds of information come into play. Often enough, we are making a case – let’s say for investment in a property fund – and feel like we’re paddling upstream. That negative current is generated by the steady stream of chatter in print and online that makes us think: “We live in the most uncertain times.”
[quote Author=”BD adviser to architecture practices” Quote=”If you want to get to the top, it’s all about brand and reputation”][/quote]
That message is powerful because we are hardwired to respond to emotion and repetition. But it’s hardly true. Every era experiences uncertainty. Is the outlook for mankind or the world economy or British politics or the property and investment sector foggier in 2017 than it was in the mists of 1924, 1939, 2001 or 2008? Hardly. Too many people labour under the illusion that things were better in the past than they are today, hence the grammatical joke about nostalgia at the top of this piece.
I’m visiting the London offices of national, audit, tax and advisory firm Crowe Clark Whitehill along with a number of property pros for an update on their 2016 survey of the property sector, and the ‘U’ word comes up. Uncertainty was a feature of last year’s survey, and it remains one of the downsides highlighted in the firm’s list of likely positives and negatives this year. It will no doubt feature in the results from this year’s survey too, which you can complete yourself online here 2017 – Survey.
But as Crowe’s Head of Property and Construction, Stacy Eden, points out: You can’t afford to wait until life is certain.
Indeed, there is no time like the present. A specialist adviser to architects once told me there are three levels in the pyramid of practices. At entry level, startups depend on word of mouth for work. Then there is the plethora of medium-sized practices frantically completing RfQs and competing for tenders. But at the pinnacle of the pyramid, topped by the likes of Foster + Partners, BDP and Zaha Hadid, he told me, it’s all about brand and reputation.
The big issue I see when many property sector clients come to me is that they are already behind the curve when they decide to act on PR and brand building. One day, they decide they want to move up to the next level, perhaps by attracting bigger-hitting investors than they’ve had before, but they should have been preparing for this day years ago. Even with a humongous budget, it takes time to build a reputation.
If your strategic plan is for growth, there is absolutely no time like the present to begin building awareness and credibility. PR will deliver when, as the textbooks say, it is planned and sustained.
So, let’s get ready for the future now and start by looking at the positives identified by Crowe:
- Low interest rates are good for homebuyers and businesses.
- Family financing and schemes such as Help to Buy are helping young people to get onto the housing ladder.
- The weak pound combined with a ten per cent fall in prices in the London prime residential sector makes it very attractive to foreign investors.
- The supply and demand imbalance on London housing means growth will continue over the next five years.
As always, there are negatives too. Let’s not pretend going for growth is risk free. Transaction rates on property deals have fallen, and there is low wage growth. The UK property sector must contend with mortgage regulations, an intransigent planning system and a heavier tax burden than many other places.
The best antidote for negativity is action. That doesn’t mean suspending reality or ignoring the negatives. As an example, I once heard of a property developer who would weigh up the potential pros and cons of various investment options. After deciding which to choose, he would put all his efforts into preventing the cons materialising. He was, you could say, focused on the negatives but towards a positive outcome.
The London Chamber has just called on the UK government to accelerate investment in infrastructure such as Crossrail 2 to boost flagging business confidence highlighted in their latest survey. Perhaps the government will act but perhaps not. Smart investors will find opportunities now rather than waiting for opportunities that may never materialise.
Waiting for everything to be perfect means waiting for ever. Those who like to look back at the past with rose-tinted glasses may reflect that things weren’t so perfect. Perhaps they may even see themselves putting off making decisions back then that would have made their brand reputations – and their businesses – a lot better off today.
A client asked me the question “do you have any research / feedback on what makes a website successful?” so here are a few pointers.
We have produced numerous websites, online shops and web apps working with our in house design team, specialists and web developer partners. For a proposal and quotation to overhaul your website that will address all of these points and more, get in touch.
- Research concluded what made a website an enjoyable/useful experience for the visitor was that it gave them the information they were looking for.
- Related to the point above, Google’s algorithms are now focused on displaying content that is authoritative and answers their users’ questions.
- This means that if you want to rank highly in search engines (mainly Google but also Yahoo, Bing etc.), you need to provide authoritative content. This is good news for us as a PR and communications agency, as creating engaging content is a huge part of what we do.
- The jiggery pokery of old school SEO specialists – loading pages with meta tags and keywords etc. to try to attract high search engine rankings – has been superseded by point 3. Google is also clamping down on web sites that try to manipulate the returns.
- Good images – and increasingly video – are important for a rich user experience. Video also enables you to attract visitors via YouTube, Vimeo etc.
- A blog and/or news section is important to keep content current and encourage repeat visitors.
- For the same reason, a live feed on the home page from a social channel – usually Twitter – or your blog news feed demonstrates you are active, current and in tune with digital communications. There is nothing sadder than a blog or social feed that has had nothing posted on it for months or even years. Again, as PR and communications providers, we help our clients ensure there is a continuity of content.
- The first websites were online brochures, and in a business to business context, that is still somewhat the case. So a contemporary design and good copy that tell your story and reflect your brand identity are crucial. This is also important for those occasions when customers and/or prospects visit your site just to find your telephone number or location. If the website looks poor or out of date on those occasions, it damages your image.
- The penultimate point is usability. A good CMS will allow authorised users to update content simply throughout the site.
- Finally, an open source platform will help to protect you against hackers and future proof your site, as you are not tied to any particular web designer or developer.
There is much more that goes into a successful website but for a parting shot, consider this. Most web projects begin with design and structure then throw together content to fill the holes. It would be better to consider content at the outset, and to put at least as much effort into it as you do into design.