“The UK has faced a sequence of severe and ongoing macroeconomic shocks over the past three years…[housing] providers continue to face an extremely uncertain operating environment…[and] there remains a possibility of further unexpected shocks.”
This is the warning from the Regulator of Social Housing in its annual Sector Risk Profile (link opens in new tab) that was published in October. In the report the regulator sets out the range of external challenges facing housing providers – high inflation, a tight labour market, the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on supply chains, and the cost of energy that has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Why is this important for housing comms people? The regulator concludes that: “Boards will face difficult trade-offs, and these will need to be communicated transparently and appropriately to stakeholders.” This comes as the reputation of housing providers is already under severe pressure due to high-profile disrepair cases and increased scrutiny from the Housing Ombudsman.
The need to communicate effectively to customers and stakeholders is clear – but how should housing providers approach this? What to be heard on and how?
As the regulator says, the first couple of steps are ones that housing association boards should already be taking. Leadership teams should be examining the extent to which their organisation’s strategic aims need to be reviewed in light of recent developments. As part of this they should be asking what are the key challenges facing your customers and stakeholders and how can you help them address these?
Once the comms team has this steer, updated comms objectives and priorities can be agreed. You can then identify which channels are the most effective for each key audience group and craft your refreshed key messages. In doing this, remember to play to your strengths to ensure your comms remains authentic. This gives the best chance of successful audience engagement and action. For instance, settle’s work to deliver its pledge of 3,000 annual staff volunteering hours is nicely presented in this recent LinkedIn post (link opens in new tab).
Tune in to your channels
This brings me to my next point on tactics: make full use of your own channels. This obviously depends on the audience you are targeting, but it still amazes me when housing providers don’t explore LinkedIn – corporate and personal profiles – or Twitter as part of campaigns. Yes, these channels may be focused on customer service or recruitment, but they can work harder and improve audience engagement into the bargain. There are loads of great examples of how to do this well – Stonewater’s recent launch of its research (link opens in new tab) into older people and technology is just one. This was supported by website content, a video as well as an upcoming podcast episode and case studies.
It’s okay to be bold
Next, don’t be afraid to be bold and run campaigns, if that is appropriate. For instance, helping people to address the cost-of-living crisis through tenancy and income support work is something several housing providers have done well. For example, Housing 21 in this post (link opens in new tab) highlighting the work of its Helping Hands initiative that has helped tenants save £700,000 in its first year. It has also explored this in more depth in a podcast on its 21 Talks channel (link opens in new tab).
Keep journalists close
Media relations remains an important channel – especially with the increased prominence of disrepair complaints in the past 18 months. Local and regional journalists have always been interested in these stories, but now national broadcast and print titles are too. Syndication of stories within large media groups has meant negative coverage is often amplified.
Being proactive in building relationships with key local journalists is an important way of ensuring they don’t only hear negative things about your organisation. The result is that, in the main, their approach tends to be fair and their reporting balanced. It is more difficult to achieve this with national journalists as their interest is usually fleeting, or they are picking up local stories.
Finally, with an expected return to austerity 2.0 in public finances, the local anchor role housing providers play in communities is likely to be more important than ever. Local authorities, charities, employers and politicians will be looking for partnerships to bolster local areas. There are challenges in external communication in the coming months, but also opportunities to deliver your social purpose.
To discuss updating your comms strategy or plan, and proactive approaches to external reputational risk mitigation, please get in touch for a chat through firstname.lastname@example.org or 0121 827 6622. You can review some of work in this area here (link opens in new tab).
Stuart Macdonald is Managing Director of See Media