So yesterday was my one-year #ukhousing birthday – exactly one year ago, I took the plunge and left journalism, joining Northwards Housing as their media and communications specialist. I’ve been laid low with a very strange chest infection/vomiting bug, so my jubilation was rather low-key. No celebratory doughnuts for me, sadly.
But one small benefit of being off poorly was that it allowed me to reflect on those 365 days in housing communications – what I’ve learnt, where I’ve done well and where I’ve done badly, but lived to tell the tale.
This year has, then, been something of a rollercoaster, so bear with me if this goes on a bit. I’ll try to be succinct though.
Here’s what I’ve learnt:
- There is no such thing as a ‘typical social housing tenant’
Contrary to what the papers would have you believe, the world of social housing is not homogenous. There is no such thing as a ‘typical tenant’. One on the great things about working in communications in housing is that you get an overview across the whole business, so I’ve had the chance to meet lots of tenants in lots of different situations. For example, in one of my trips shadowing an neighbourhood housing officer, I met a very drunk elderly man who had collapsed at the side of the road. Another time, I wrote a press release about a very anti-social tenant who had made his neighbours’ lives a misery.
Those are the bad ones. But I’ve also met some inspirational men and women with brilliant ideas. The steering group who advised us on our annual report, for example, was full of tenants with really advanced ideas and suggestions about how to communicate dry facts and figures. During door-knocking to raise awareness of welfare reform, I met mums who were trying hard to make ends meet, who wanted the best lives for their children. I met people who were succeeding and who were proud of what they’d achieved. Have a listen to these guys if you want further proof – some of our tenants were hand-picked to appear on the Today programme. They’ve never had any media training, yet they speak to Evan Davies with articulacy, knowledge and passion.
It’s also interesting for comms professionals – it’s hard to write to a target audience when your audience is so diverse. Actually, Northwards Housing already had that covered before I arrived and I think we do a fairly good job of it, but it’s something really important that I try to bear in mind when we are starting a new job.
- Digital, digital, digital
My Northwards birthday comes as I’ve been rather flatteringly listed in Paul Taylor’s Top 50 Power Players in housing – very strange because I still know nothing in comparison to some of the bigwigs on the 24Housing list. Still, I think his point – that many of the top dogs in the housing world lack an online profile – is a valid one, and he’s brave to make it.
There are others with more experience of detailing the benefits of having an online presence – Paul Taylor’s blog is excellent, and this article about why housing organisations need a digital strategy is really good too. But I’m adding my voice to the clamour, with my own little piece of advice – be human. Being a ‘suit’ doesn’t cut it, and the best communication is the stuff that marks you out as a real person.
- Housing providers are the first to innovate
I’ve been amazed at how much innovation goes on in the housing sector. I’m not just talking about the digital stuff – though Halton’s welfare reform infographic wins in the digital stakes for me. I’m also talking about the interesting ways housing professionals have found to cope with the unprecedented challenges which face our industry in a climate of public sector austerity.
From New Charter’s ‘soap opera’ on welfare reform, to the Foundations in Housing apprenticeship programme, to something we’re working on that I can’t tell you about til next month, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of brilliant minds in the housing sector. I count myself lucky to work alongside such interesting people, people whose minds I’ve been plundering, hoping that even some of that knowledge will rub off.
- Comms is king
Talking about innovation, there are lots of really cool, really interesting people working in comms in housing. I regularly attend the National Federation of ALMOs comms officers meetings – sharing ideas and best practice. An ALMO in Kent, for example, has cool ‘you’ve been papped’ cards to hand out at public events, to drive traffic to their website. I also went to #commscamp in February, where I met some innovative people talking about really changing lives by the way we use communication. The authority in Scotland, for example, trying to help people get fit by sending targeted text messages. If it’s a nice day, they’ll text about going for a long walk, or getting off the bus a stop early.
- It’s not always easy
Re-reading what I’ve written above, it sounds lovely. Working in housing sounds like a romantic ideal, where things never go wrong and everyone is fabulous all the time. It’s not like that either. People mess up (including me!). But I think what I’ve learnt is that it is just as much how you deal with the mess. I learnt that, and I’m continuing to learn that every day.
I’m so lucky to work in #ukhousing and I’m already looking forward to detailing what I’ve learnt this time next year!