Sunday, 29 March 2015

Six challenges faced by housing comms professionals

So I've been absent from my blog for a while... life has been very busy! Life will continue to be relentlessly busy for the next few weeks, but I wanted to share a recent post I wrote for comms2point0 with my readers. It gives an insight into my work as a social housing comms professional, and I'm sure there are lots of bloggers out there who work in similar roles and who would relate to some of the challenges I've discussed below. 


I’ve worked in communications in the social housing sector for seven years, ever since I was a fresh faced graduate. Although my role has developed and progressed significantly during this time, some challenges have remained the same throughout.

1. Sorry, you do what?

Do you ever wish you had a simpler job title, like ‘doctor’ or ‘teacher’? Whenever people ask me what I do, I have to explain what ‘Communications Officer’ means as well as what ‘Community Housing Cymru’ does. As my job encompasses a number of different functions and a lot of people aren’t familiar with what social housing organisations do, it can be difficult to summarise when meeting someone for the first time. At the end of my long winded explanation, I’m never sure if the person on the other end has understood or if they’re just nodding vigorously out of politeness. I suspect they’re usually nodding out of politeness as I still occasionally get asked if I work for the council, or if my job consists of proofreading all day. I love my job, but it’s a difficult one to explain concisely!

2. Overcoming the stigma

One of the biggest issues we face as comms professionals working in social housing is the stigma we fight against every single day. The vitriol spouted towards housing associations and their tenants is never ending and without fact or substance, but it’s still extremely difficult to penetrate this venom with our genuine case studies. Media outlets love to publish the rare stories about benefit fraudsters, scroungers and the like, but they aren’t so keen to publish our positive stories about the hard working, compassionate, enthusiastic and innovative tenants we work with every day from all walks of life.

Changing perceptions of the social housing sector and making the public aware of the varied work carried out by housing associations is a huge battle and something that every housing comms professional faces, particularly when programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ are repeatedly shoved down our throats. However, it’s something we’ll continue to fight as we’re passionate about the cause we represent and want to see an end to the demonisation of social housing tenants.

3. Backing from SMT

Although this isn’t an issue I face personally, this is a common problem across the board for communication professionals. Communications often doesn’t have a seat at the top table, or even at managerial level, which means that the whole comms function is seen as less of a priority and messages aren’t filtered up or down effectively throughout the organisation.

Communications is sometimes tagged on to someone’s already packed job description which dilutes its importance. Whether people are passionate about communications or not, it can be very difficult to get their voice heard when the function isn’t supported from the top down throughout the organisation. Senior management teams and boards need to be convinced that communication is vital for their business, as we communicate what everyone else does!

4. Lack of information on what we need to communicate

Universal Credit is an excellent example to illustrate this particular problem. We’re required to communicate big changes such as Universal Credit to our members and in turn to their tenants, but we’re often not given all the facts we need to communicate these changes effectively. Goal posts get moved, information gets concealed and things are just all-round confusing.

If we don’t understand certain policies and processes ourselves and don’t possess all the facts, it’s downright impossible to communicate them effectively. And don’t get me started on the jargon issue…

5. The Lobbying Act

In a more recent development, the Lobbying Act is certain to cause issues for comms professionals in the months leading up to the General Election and beyond. Available guidance on the Act is vague, and the monitoring of social media channels for material which could be deemed to influence voters is concerning.

Organisations need to spend under a certain threshold on political campaigning if they haven’t registered with the Electoral Commission… how on earth do you work out how much a tweet costs? Although housing associations are politically unbiased organisations, this is still an area where housing comms professionals will need to be very vigilant in the months to come.

6. People just don’t GET comms

As a regular reader of the blog posts featured on comms2point0, I know this is a common issue across all comms professionals. People just don’t get what we do! Some think we’re nags, some think we’re fluffy, and others think we sit and twiddle our thumbs on Facebook and Twitter all day. These misconceptions can make it difficult to get our point across and to make the rest of the organisation see how vital our role is for their particular department.

This problem links nicely to the first and third points… communications won’t be taken seriously until people truly understand the value of what we do.

Are you a housing comms professional? Would you agree with the six points above, or do you have more to add to the list? Let me know what you think.