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Duncan Hopwood

Is there a right time for property firms to invest in PR?

July 14, 2017

‘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.”

If you want to get to the top, it's all about brand and reputation
- BD adviser to architecture practices

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.