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Duncan Hopwood

Reputation management and women in property

December 19, 2019

The big communications challenge for the real estate sector is changing attitudes

The property sector has a bad image. Developers and contractors are “net takers” from society. The public sees no social value from their activities. They don’t trust them – or councils – on planning. They wouldn’t advise young people to join the industry.

This grim rundown is communicated by Melanie Leech, head of the British Property Federation. An audience of real estate pros listens. It’s hard to say if they are surprised. Probably not.

No-one likes us

There has always been a Millwall-attitude among some hard-headed industry types: “No-one likes us. We don’t care.” But today, there is a realisation that such attitudes are not helpful. For example, winning public support for a regeneration project that is partly funded by a local council is tough enough without starting a goal down. A recent visit to Anthology’s Hoxton Press development  showed that to be true. It took numerous iterations to get the people of Hackney’s approval.

How should we respond to what seems like an overwhelming reputation management challenge? One initiative is a new BPF campaign. The pillars of ‘Redefining Real Estate’ include communities, skills and environment – something else that the industry isn’t trusted on, according to BPF studies.

It’s clear that to change public perceptions, the sector must change. Melanie confesses to being shocked when she came into property at attitudes to the public. Today, though, there is a move towards thinking about customers as people. That’s a mindset identified in a recent Property Week article as crucial for competitive advantage.

PR exercise

Mindful that this campaign can’t be a superficial PR exercise, the BPF has decided to walk the talk (the best kind of PR, as I discussed in our blog The Daring Fox) on diversity by shaking up its board.

Modernisation (such an old-fashioned world) also means that the property industry must embrace technology, music to the ears of our prop-tech client, Abintra.

Speaking alongside Melanie at the offices of top ten accountancy firm Crowe is Sandi Rhys-Jones of the Association of Women in Property . She singles out thought leadership and story-telling – both powerful weapons in the PR and communications armoury – as key factors in changing attitudes.

Story telling

“It’s a great industry,” she says. “We need to tell a better story.”

She took a group of children to Waterloo Bridge, built during the war by a workforce that was 70 per cent women, to get the message across. She works with a comedian to highlight the issue of unconscious bias in the construction workplace.

We need to look a through a new lens, she suggests. That’s one of the reasons for getting an outside PR and communications agency to look at your real estate business. It’s always hard to see yourself as others see you.

Lightbulb joke

There’s an old joke. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change. Initiatives such as the BPF’s new campaign and Women In Property will not by themselves change the industry’s reputation.

EG’s (female) editor Sam Clary is a passionate proponent of diversity and equality in the sector. Between chastising the industry for its inequalities, she often highlights good works by companies making commitments to change.

Are these beacons that others will follow? Are they a real trend, rather than just flavour of the month? Are they window dressing or backed up by effective action? I recall Nigel Bogle of the ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (Levi jeans boxer shorts launderette) saying that the measure of a company having a genuine principle is to ask does that principle cost it money.

Get the message out

I wonder what proportion of real estate firms have a desire, let alone a funded communications programme, to play a part in changing the industry’s reputation. Will such funded programmes survive a downturn? Commitment to protecting the environment was a big deal in the early 1990s until recession hit. It took more than a decade to climb back up the corporate agenda.

Hefty though it is, the UK property and construction sector is part of a global picture. Wider tectonic shifts in public attitudes as well as global economic forces will eventually force it to change. But we can accelerate change by walking the walk.

Which brings me to a final question: How many firms are doing good things but neglecting to get the message out? As I’ve seen on numerous regeneration and reputation management projects, you need to walk the walk and talk the talk.