Almost two years since the Grenfell Tower inferno, the scars are not only still apparent on the London skyline, but in the reputation and shared consciousness of the UK’s housing industry. Every time I’ve worked with housing professionals on media training, reputation or crisis management, the horror of Grenfell hovers like a spectre in the room and mention of it still sends shivers down spines.
And rightly so. The Grenfell fire unmasked the level of issues and risks that permeate the social housing sector, opening the door to intense government, media and public scrutiny. Questions are still being asked about what lessons we learnt and whether housing associations are now equipped to deal with the range of incidents they might face.
Recent headlines announcing a new £200 million government fund to accelerate the removal of dangerous cladding on UK housing stock, demonstrates the operational response to the disaster is on-going. My experience speaking recently at two industry conferences suggests the psychological readiness and organisational preparedness to respond to future crises is also a work in progress.
Confidence in the social housing sector received an additional blow when a recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme, focused on the Sanctuary Housing Group in March this year. The undercover documentary shone the spotlight on the sub-standard living conditions residents were experiencing. Images of collapsed ceilings, gaping holes and severe damp provided the shock factor the producers were looking for. But the physical state of disrepair was just the foundation for the programme’s damning reportage.
At the emotive heart of the story was the insouciance of Sanctuary Housing’s management. Their poor maintenance record, lack of responsiveness to resident complaints and unwillingness to be interviewed on the programme spoke of an inefficient and uncaring culture. Poignantly, in an industry whose core purpose is to provide one of the most basic needs to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
In her March article on reputation management for Inside Housing Kate Davies, Chief Executive at Notting Hill Genesis, wrote: “Housing associations want people to have an emotional bond with our organisations…. This is what a good reputation amounts to”. Her ‘Tips on Maintaining a Good Reputation’ include: “Leaders must communicate our values” and “Be more human and less bland – show your caring side”.
Superficially the public statement by Sanctuary Housing’s Group Chief Executive, Craig Moule, in response to the Dispatches programme seems to follow this advice. The statement, hosted on Sanctuary’s website, quotes Moule as saying: “I want our residents to know we care because they can see it and feel it in our actions. I acknowledge we don’t always get things right and if we have fallen short, we work with residents to make sure we understand why and how we can improve.”
However, despite these words, the edited snippet used in the Dispatches broadcast still painted the organisation as failing and in denial: “Having seen the programme, we know this is not an accurate reflection of these cases or our wider services. … How our actions have been presented – that we refused to fix issues for example – is simply untrue”.
As a result, the public perception was that a senior executive was content to hide behind a non-apologetic written statement. This was widely condemned after the programme aired and social media responses to Sanctuary were unstintingly critical.
This created a new shockwave of mistrust and reputational damage to the sector. In media terms, perception is reality. The problem for Sanctuary is that it doesn’t look transparent or resilient when issues arise. Their leadership appears to be distant, not caring enough to provide a face and voice to address tenants’ concerns. Had they possessed a top-tier team of media-trained executives confident to handle journalists’ questions in a crisis, they could have emerged from the mauling looking like an organisation that truly listens, rather than one which only ‘transmits’ on its own terms.
The European Management Journal’s paper ‘The Reputation Index: Measuring and Managing Corporate Reputation’ states: “Perhaps the most critical, strategic, and enduring asset that a corporation possesses is its reputation”.
Kate Davies’ article ends by acknowledging the difficulty in quantifying the value of reputation, but emphasises its importance: “We have very little data on reputation. It’s a good idea to do some research and build reputation into your risk management”.
The government Regulator of Social Housing’s 2018 Sector Risk Profile lists ‘Reputation Risk’ second only to ‘Health & Safety’ in its Strategic Risks. It states: “The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire has seen unprecedented scrutiny of the social housing sector, landlords’ relationship with their tenants, and public interest in the sector’s wider social role. Boards need to be aware that their actions will be scrutinised by a wide range of different stakeholders with a range of different perspectives, including tenants and residents, lenders and investors, central and local government, and the media. Registered providers should ensure that they manage their businesses and manage their risks in such a way that they have regard to stakeholders’ expectations in their decision making and do not damage the reputation of the sector as a whole.”
I’m pleased to say that a great many housing communications colleagues have expressed a clear desire to put someone in front of the camera, where possible. But the ability to do that depends both on transparency being embedded in the organisational culture and on appropriate spokespeople being trained and confident to cope with challenging media questions if needed. It also requires CEO’s to value communications professionals at board level, and to listen to their advice.
Preparedness is key. Despite the unpredictability of a crisis, planning how to manage one is easier to achieve. However, when I asked housing association colleagues at a recent communications conference how many had run Business Continuity Planning exercises in the past 12 months, only half put up their hands.
That’s a worry. Not just for individual organisations, but for the industry as a whole. For as both Grenfell and Sanctuary Housing clearly tell us, in the modern media age a reputation is a very fragile construction.