The most notable thing about Inside Housing’s recent Communications Conference was not its wide array of speakers – drawn from inside and outside the housing sector – but the fact they reached strikingly similar conclusions about what successful PR looks like right now.
Three distinct themes ran throughout the inaugural event.
The first was the value of face-to-face interaction. During the session on changing communication in a digital and mobile age, Liz Male, founder of LMC, told us how Generation Z (people born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s) are logging off social media as they value human engagement.
Having grown up with social media, the young seem to be the first to have realised that there needs to be a way of cutting through the constant bombardment of messages via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Digitally-speaking, they may be well networked, but they’re still seeking something to truly connect with.
The second theme of the day may provide the answer: storytelling. This isn’t so much about tugging on people’s heartstrings, as engaging their brains, which, explained Paul Cash, founder of B2B marketing agency Rooster Punk, are hard-wired for stories.
Storytelling must, however, be coupled with data: the third theme to emerge throughout the conference sessions. Human stories and factual evidence are two wings of the same bird, was the way Cash described it.
“If we don’t have empirical data to back up our claims, we’re just another idiot with an opinion,” stated Carol Jones, director of communications, marketing and public affairs at The Hyde Group, during a later session.
She explained how the factual evidence gathered for her organisation’s ‘The value of a social tenancy’ report provided the mandate it needed to share tenants’ stories.
In turn, these stories went on to be far more impactful than the data. Carol recalled how, when Hyde tenant Shana stood up at the report launch at the House of Commons and explained how her life had nearly fallen apart after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it moved the audience in a way that lengthy statistics simply never could.
Throughout yesterday, speakers reiterated that social landlords are spoilt for choice when it comes to ‘mining’ powerful tenant stories, but Hyde’s comms director pointed out that this is all the more reason for their selection to be strategic.
Her organisation’s campaign was all about the importance of providing a roof over residents’ heads – this was its core objective, so stories dwelling on how the organisation added value by helping individuals into work or training, for example, would have been a distraction.
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, was the final speaker of the day. He swooped in and reiterated the same three themes.
Social media is noise, he stated. People are driven to short-termism because of it, but it’s important to stand back.
Communications should be approached in this order: objectives, strategy, tactics. And the best strategies, Campbell explained, are the ones that you’re at ease with, and can be open with your staff and members of the public about.
Like other speakers before him, he questioned the value of press releases. Instead, we should be concentrating on targeted audiences, he said.
With the coincidental repetition of the same ideas time and time again, it seems yesterday’s event hit upon something of a comms zeitgeist.
How fleeting its elements will be, is anybody’s guess. For example, one audience member questioned whether we are in danger of telling too many stories? Won’t we all start resenting the many organisations trying to claim their share of our emotional energy?
Rooster Punk’s Paul Cash, admitted these things tend to go in cycles. People may well grow tired of it in years to come, he said, but at the moment, a good story is where it is at.
The housing sector should be able to harness this. At a time of general uncertainty, social landlords know exactly why they do what they do.
Everything else should – with careful strategic positioning – fall neatly into place.
Lydia Stockdale is Public Relations Director at See Media