Whilst we at See Media welcome the increased scrutiny on poor housing conditions in some socially rented homes, I’ve been thinking for a while now about what a double-edged sword this focus is.
Some of the reporting of residents living in homes with outstanding repairs and damp and mould issues, although intended to bring about positive change, is also serving to further stigmatise residents.
The stigma attached to social housing is nothing new. But it is time it changed.
The social stigma
Having worked in housing PR for 25 years, I’ve seen all manner of negativity around living in social housing. And I’ve also met many fantastic people living in social housing – people just like you and I, people who work hard, look after their homes, look after their families and contribute to the economy. The only difference is they can’t afford to buy or rent a home on the open market.
But do you see many stories in the media portraying these positive examples of social housing residents? I don’t think we see enough, and definitely not as many as I’d like.
And with the recent focus on standards in social housing, the media coverage risks further stigmatising those that live in our client’s homes, through repeated negative stories, videos, and images of poor living conditions.
The last thing I would want is for these issues to be hidden. As you’ll know if you’ve met me or read my earlier blogs, I work with clients to make things better for their residents, not to hide issues. If a landlord isn’t doing its job properly, I’m all for something being done about it – even if that means spotlighting the issue in the media. I think it’s great progress that residents are feeling empowered not to put up with poor, sometimes life-threatening conditions. We all have a right to live somewhere decent – in fact, somewhere we can be proud to call home.
But the current narrative frequently gives rise to judgemental comments, which are at best thoughtless and hurtful, and at worst vile and hateful. It still surprises me that people can be so far from the truth when it comes to the people that live in social housing; people who are now easy targets for vilification by faceless comments online. With the addition of social media, the spread of biased or frankly made-up ‘information’ using negative language towards social housing can happen incredibly quickly.
The problem, in my opinion, is two-fold: lack of positive stories to counteract the negative, and lack of knowledge or information provided to journalists.
According to Durham University’s Thinkhouse Report on Stigma and Social Housing in England, “media outlets prioritize negative stories and are not necessarily interested in the positive stories, which will enable them to publish more balanced stories. (…) the negative portrayal of social housing and its tenants by the media needs to be challenged and changed”.
Despite the many positive stories that we send to the media about the fantastic things that social housing residents and their housing providers are doing around the UK, it’s often the negative ones that make the news, that run for longer and receive the most attention. Maybe that’s just human nature, but it also has a lot to do with the residents that are chosen to be featured in articles, and the negative language used, in order to sensationalise or draw more interest to those stories – doing nothing to dispel the myth that those in social housing don’t work, don’t contribute, don’t deserve decent homes.
When talking about the representation of social housing in the press, one social resident interviewed for the Thinkhouse report said: “I’m on an estate that was knocked down and rebuilt … they picked out about three people on the estate who happened to have very serious problems and highlighted them as if they were typical of everybody else on the estate, but of course, they obviously weren’t.”
Honesty is the best policy
Negative language and portrayals can undo all the good work we do with positive news.
However, I think we in the PR profession are also guilty of withholding information for fear of giving too much away, which in turn leads to often irrelevant or unnecessary information being dug up by the press.
Take the Nicola Bulley disappearance as an example. If the police had trusted the relevant media with information about Nicola’s medical issues and alcohol dependence, as a way of helping them understand why they were so convinced she was in the water, that information could have potentially been kept private. The alternative was the press being left to dig up sensationalist snippets to get their story, resulting in unfounded theories from untrusted sources and the related public hysteria.
Just as there is a misconception of the types of people who live in social housing, there is also a misconception that journalists can’t be trusted. There will of course always be those that want to publish whatever gets them the most attention or readers that day, but we have to start learning to work with, trust, and open up to the media if we want to work together to tackle the stigma around living in social housing.
One respondent to the Thinkhouse Report stated that: “We should educate media where possible… explaining more in press releases, putting more information on our websites, ensuring our media/social media is balanced.”
They also cited a housing association who conducted interviews with media outlets explaining the sector and their work – perhaps something we and our clients should think about doing more regularly, not just when something goes wrong.
Relationships are key
Once our media contacts know that we aren’t keeping half the story from them, that we trust them to know all the facts but not necessarily to publish them if it isn’t in the interest of the residents or community, then we can work on helping them choose more representative individuals and families, using fewer stigmatising images and more positive language, and showcasing good news too. Building a relationship is key.
With the current issues facing the housing sector around damp and mould, and repairs response times, it’s never been more important to see news coverage that is honest, representative and shows not just the problems faced by some, but all the good that goes on in the world of social housing too. And hopefully without the negative language and stigma that has plagued social housing for far too long.
If you’d like to have a chat about positive stories tackling social housing stigma your organisation must tell, then contact 0121 827 6622 or email me at Sarah.Thomas@see-media.co.uk.
Sarah Thomas, Group Account Director, See Media