What is the real role of ‘PR people’ in a crisis?

mould and housing associations

mould and housing associations

In a time of increased scrutiny of social housing providers, particularly following the tragic death of Awaab Ishak due to exposure to extreme damp and mould, housing associations and local authorities are being thrown into the spotlight.

Controversy surrounds awards ceremonies celebrating their successes. There’s an increased focus on where tenants’ money is being spent, and government and housing bodies are becoming more heavily involved in organisations’ day to day actions and communications with residents – to ensure that they are getting the basics right. 

As a PR agency working primarily with social housing providers, you would probably think we’d be dreading every journalist’s call, or alternatively telling everyone that everything is hunky dory – nothing to see here! Neither of these is the case. So what is the real role of PR people like us, when representing and supporting clients in a sector-wide crisis? 

Stepping up in a crisis

First, rather than wishing for the media spotlight to go away, we have to step up on behalf of our clients and make sure they receive a fair hearing. We know that our clients have the best interests of residents at heart – but we also know that this doesn’t always mean they get everything right. Especially when working in a challenging sector such as social housing. 

Second, you might think the role of PR people is to cover up mistakes or put a positive spin on issues that come to light. But we aren’t in the business of putting “lipstick on a pig”, as the team know I’m fond of saying. We see it as our role to guide and challenge those that choose to work with us. We offer our expertise and try to make changes for the better, to prevent negative things from happening again. We use our influence as external advisers to help bring about improvements that mean residents don’t need to contact the media to resolve an issue they are facing. 

At See Media, we work in a sector that is there to support some of the most vulnerable in society. We want to (I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true) make a positive difference. 

Our agency is made up of ‘normal’ people – those who have lived in social housing, single parents, those with vulnerable family members. We are real people who get what it’s like to have limited choices. 

Honest crisis communications advice

Often PR people are seen as just wanting to make the organisation they’re working for look good. At See Media, we want to get to the root of a problem and aren’t afraid to challenge our clients if we think they could do better, or quite frankly if they aren’t doing what’s best for their residents.

We’ll bring some creativity to getting the job done – but we won’t paper over the cracks and won’t shy away from accepting that at times the only response is an apology and making sure that the same issue isn’t repeated. In the end, our approach pays off. As our clients, and the media that are challenging them and hopefully in turn their residents and communities, value our honesty and integrity. 

Housing sector knowledge

An important factor in our role is sector knowledge, knowing the ins and outs of housing management and likely areas where service delivery fails to meet resident expectations. We understand the complexities of the work and when things go wrong what needs to be done to make it right. 

We don’t just deal with a press enquiry, or handle a crisis, and then move on. We look for patterns, liaise with our clients on issues and talk about what can be done about them – ensuring that customers are at the heart of our discussions. We also discourage defensiveness and passing the buck, two of the things that only make things worse and are truly frustrating for those we’re trying to help. Encouraging our clients to take responsibility, say sorry and put processes in place to make things better is a big part of what we do. 

And let’s not forget that for all the current negativity surrounding housing providers, many of the people we work with on a daily basis are doing a great job, and are really passionate about the job that they do.

Make a positive difference

But when something awful does happen, which is rare, it’s often due to problems being unresolved, unrealistic expectations being set or poor communication within an organisation. That’s where we can help, alongside all a client’s day-to-day marketing and PR needs, rather than just writing jazzy quotes for the media, as is often the perception. 

So, if you want someone who will gloss over mistakes and tell you what you want to hear, that prioritises form over function, that’s not us. We do have our glitz and glamour moments, both as an agency and alongside our clients, but we want them to be earned. 

Our role is to tell real stories, and to show off the amazing things that the housing sector and its people do. But we can only do that well when we represent clients that we believe in, who have credibility and are taking steps to improve where needed. With our guidance and advice as housing PR experts, we really can work together to (here it comes again!) ‘make a positive difference’.  

If you’d like to have a chat about crises or issues your organisation is facing, then contact 0121 827 6622 or email me at Sarah.Thomas@see-media.co.uk.

Sarah Thomas, Group Account Director, See Media