In defence of #ukhousing comms professionals

I see Nick Atkin has provoked a few housing (comms) professionals over the last couple of days after some of his comments made during his workshop session for the recent NFA conference were published on Inside Housing (IH).

Before I continue, here are a couple of disclaimers – I wasn’t at Nick’s presentation so the following is based purely on the IH article…and I am a housing comms professional. This post is also not designed to pick everything he’s said to bits – I’ve met Nick a few times now and appreciate what him and his team at Halton are trying to do, particularly in advancing digital culture.

However, I’ve read the article a few times now and whilst I appreciate, through Nick’s own admission, that the session was designed to be provocative, I can’t help feel that one of the points made was below the belt. Not because it was necessarily inaccurate, but by the use of such a broad brush to paint a bleak picture of housing comms.

If you’ve read the article, and particularly if you’re a comms person, I’m sure you know the line I’m talking about:

“If you give your social media account to your comms people they will broadcast boring, staid, corporate glossy messages using words that mean absolutely nothing to anybody. So if you do nothing else, wrestle it away from the corporate comms people.”

Bit of a teeth-dryer this one. So the suggestion now is not only to open up social media beyond the comms teams but to actively “wrestle it away” from those trained professionals whose day job consists of PR, reputation management, creativity, brand development, innovation and writing human interest stories amongst many other tasks?

From some of the seminars and conferences I’ve been to over my last couple of years in housing, I don’t think I’ve actually met anyone in housing comms who has an active desire to broadcast boring corporate messages. Quite the opposite in fact. A lot of the problems still seem to stem from senior managers, executives or even boards who remain fearful of social media and won’t allow their increasingly frustrated comms teams to innovate. They have long recognised the power of social media, how it can add a human face to their company and encourage really useful discussion direct with customers, tenants, residents or whatever we’re calling them this week.

Paul Smith makes a valid point in the comments section of the IH article too about customers driving our social media agendas, not us “#commsheroes”. At North Lincolnshire Homes, whilst we’ve had a facebook page for a few years now, what it’s actually worked best for is providing a forum for customer service. By having a page, monitored by customer service advisors it’s allowed us to sort out their problems in the public arena. In return, said customers have remained loyal to the page and allowed us comms folk to share our boring, staid corporate glossy messages human, informal yet respectful messages with them and have some quite interesting discussions around bedroom tax, home security and other topics of interest to the tenants.

There are some other facts we can’t forget. Of course, social networks are a wonderful way to communicate with our tenants in quite a cost effective way. I had the pleasure of assessing the facebook presence of some 240 housing associations last year as part of the Connected Housing Index with Anne McCrossan and co at Visceral Business. It revealed some really great use of the platform and inevitably some dormant or poorly monitored pages littered with ignored comments from customers.

What was most surprising was though was that only a handful of housing associations had more than 1,000 page likes. So straight away, #ukhousing’s facebook presence is quite limited. Let’s add to this problem. We don’t have any control over what facebook does with the content we post on there, unless we start paying to promote or ‘boost’ posts.

It’s well documented that earlier this year facebook allegedly changed its algorithm which appeared to vastly reduce the reach of the average facebook post – by this I mean the amount of people who actually get to see the status you’ve posted.  Not only that but more and more brands and companies are trying to squeeze onto facebook timelines so it’s inevitable that more and more of our posts will drop off, unless it’s corking content that’s heavily engaged with.

So, in quite a long winded way, what I’m trying to say is whilst I agree with Nick’s sentiments that housing needs to embrace social media more, we’ve still got to be mindful of more traditional communication channels before we charge off into the light. In fact, it’s probably more useful to look at building our own online communities away from third party platforms, much like the Connected Housing Index and Thom Bartley endorsed earlier in the year.

Similarly, like Paul Kennedy points out in the IH article comments, there’s still an awful lot of work to be done with actually getting tenants online before we invest all our energy in improving our social media presence. But that’s a post in itself.

I’m not really bothered too much about the debate for or against social media, I think we can all agree that we need to do more with it but it does still need some form of control and monitoring to be done successfully. It’s all a balancing act really of empowering everyone to make the best use of it.

However, what I am bothered about is learning from you, fellow comms professional, about the trials and tribulations of creating engaging content. Do you find it easy? What do you find works for your tenants? What do they like to talk about? Is it photos that do it for them? Text statuses? Videos? Feel free to comment below.

***

One final point that made me chuckle, soon after reading the IH article I received an email from a journalist asking for more information in relation to a social media post they’d read on one of our accounts about a recent drugs raid on our patch. Good job we had a press release ready to go… 😉

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6 thoughts on “In defence of #ukhousing comms professionals

  1. Great post, Rob. While I think Nick is definitely right in most of what he says, I also agree with your point that the Comms teams are not, in many cases the problem (although sometimes they are). Comms teams have important roles in being facilitators of their organisations’ journey into making effective use of social media, right across the institution. They can be coaches, encouragers, and trainers. Hopefully, they will not be blockers.

    The thing about social media is it radically changes the way organisations work. It makes them open, transparent and human. I would hope those are qualities we would all value.

    • Hear, hear John. You’re bang on the money about comms teams having the potential to be important enablers, same applies to a good ICT team too. Totally appreciate there will always be pockets where gatekeepers remain though.

      It’s thar level playing field you describe that social media has created which excites me the most – that you can get behind the scenes and learn how an organisation really ticks.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Defo a number of valid points made here (and by Nick). I can fully appreciate both sides. As a sector we are in desperate need of a greater sense of identity, bland corporate comms does nothing to help that. Whether the blockage is exec team or comms team based it is important to understand and overcome resistance to change/humanised comms.

    Additionally very much in agreement that we need to walk before run vis a vis resident digital access issues. Part of this is nudge as well as helping hands however.

  3. Cheers Neil, certainly with you on the need for overcoming resistance. Perhaps socially savvy CEOs can be the ones who rally their colleagues and board members to break down these barriers at a senior level?

    I do think the landscape is changing though and comms teams are trying to be different and innovative with their messages.

    Perhaps there are two issues here – obviously there is a lot of focus on providing comms for our tenants and our local communities but maybe there’s a need for these teams to step up and shout louder on a national level too? Then again – I guess things like Ade Capon’s #HousingDay is a step in the right direction trying to address this issue.

  4. Hi Rob, I came here after reading Nick’s latest blog post on Inside Housing and I have to say I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. I felt compelled to comment because the innovation vs reluctance to change debate seems rife in UK housing at the moment and you’ve made a lot of good points in terms of what us comms teams are doing/trying to achieve.

    I think debate is really important, as well as change, but any successful profit-driven business’s marketing goes where the customers are. If 50% of our customers aren’t online and we are forcing them to go online to pay their rent, we should really make sure the support is there to help them learn skills and find internet access. If we don’t, well, we might struggle to get 50% of our rent payments. At the end of the day, there will always be people who want to transact in the traditional ways.

    About your question on engaging content, I think about this a lot and this is a tricky one to get right. I don’t find it easy; we are all essentially landlords after all, and our Facebook pages naturally attract complaints. New homes work well, as do positive stories about our tenants. Facebook’s constant algorithmic changes make it tough though! Happy to chat more about what works.

    • Hi Maria, thanks for taking the time to reply and sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you.

      You’re bang on the money with the comment about being where your customers are – yes, I admit we all could and definitely should persuade more of our tenants to get online but (in my opinion) we can’t ignore people or simply force them to get online. Apathy or even fear are still quite often barriers to digital inclusion with need to be overcome before we go digital by default. Otherwise we’re charging into no mans land effectively covering our ears and chanting “la la la, I’m not listening!”

      Providing flexibility and choice is ultimately the key I reckon.

      On content, It’s certainly a challenge. I do wonder how much the average landlord tracks and measures in terms of social media engagement (beyond just likes) to learn what does and doesn’t work. That and referrals through to their websites. I think I’m going to write another blog post on this particular topic as there seems to be an awful lot of rhetoric about going digital but little useful advice for fellow comms teams on how to effectively measure their hard work. It’d be great for more of us to share what we’re doing on this particular point so we can learn more about it all.

      Bring on the complaints on facebook though, it’s the best way for a landlord to showcase that they do care and they do effectively resolve people’s problems online. Powerful stuff indeed! Thanks again Maria.

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