Does Social Housing Need To Find A Richard Branson?

A defining career moment - Support act (No.19!) to Sir Richard Branson...
A defining career moment – Support act (No.19 on the bill!) to Sir Richard Branson…

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 11.20.44 It’s May 2008 , and Helena Moore and I have just left the stage at the European Customer Management World Conference. We had just presented to an audience that included John Lewis , Microsoft and some young startup outfit called Facebook. People who we would now recognise as experts in marketing their product and selling their vision.

For most attending it was their first experience of Social Housing.  Our slot was about creating a service culture in a sector not known for sexiness or imagination. We used images of Shameless and Jeremy Kyle. We knew what our audience were thinking and we wanted to debunk the myths and talk about things we were proud of – the extraordinary achievements of our customers and colleagues. These are some of the comments we received:

  • “Loved it! We expected this to be the most boring slot of the day!”
  • “I really thought it would all be about people on benefits and anti-social behaviour – instead it was inspirational”
  • “I thought of council housing and the public sector as old fashioned –  not very commercial “
  • “We were dreading your slot. But I get what you are trying to do – it’s all about helping people be better – right?”

And , for your amusement , two priceless (100% genuine) comments about Helena and I :

  • “It’s good that you two didn’t wear suits – you stood out by being a bit scruffy…”
  • “We love that you guys at Bromford don’t seem to plan anything and are a bit , you know , rough”

Two years to the day after this presentation the Coalition was formed, Gordon Brown packed his bags, and the Labour Party left Government. I don’t believe the incidents were related –  my point is this – we need to forget the talk about a Government demonising social housing. We had an image problem under the last Government and we have an image problem under this one.

We have never been popular. Never been sexy. And in a world where we are all marketeers – it’s time we stopped blaming other people and started dealing with it.

whats_your_story The stories behind Bedroom Tax and Welfare Reform have tipped in the last few weeks. They have gone mainstream. Primetime TV and Tabloid coverage. Clearly we are doing something right.

About 9 months ago I did an experiment about the stories we produce within the sector. It revealed that only 8% of online content was about the people living in our homes and our communities. The rest was about us. And – as I’m sure you know – it’s not about us. 

My latest check has revealed a huge improvement. 25% of social housing output now concerns the lives of residents.  We have embraced social tools to share compelling video with a strong social narrative. We’ve done well at highlighting an issue that matters and pushing it into the public consciousness. But there is still room for improvement.

In the last two weeks a huge 40% of stories generated were about how landlords themselves are going to struggle as a result of reforms. Actual customers were briefly mentioned in passing.

The remaining 35% of output was largely introspective examinations about ( the lack of ) housing finance and development opportunity. If looked at from outside the sector could this be viewed as navel-gazing? A sector that is incapable of innovation and is now feeling sorry for itself?

Back in 2008 Sir Richard Branson headlined the conference. Quiet, unassuming and a little bit nervous – he opened his slot with four minutes of video showing every success and every failure he had been involved in. And then he talked about how he had fought off Government interference and bureaucracy , breaking into new markets by proving the unique value of what his brand could offer customers. The way he told the story of Virgin adding value to the world was electrifying.

You left the room thinking that without them the planet would be a very grey place indeed.

I wonder how Virgin, John Lewis , Facebook and Microsoft would cope with being unpopular , undervalued and underfunded?

I wonder how they would tell their story?

Maybe we should ask them.

NB: ( Statistics used come from 2 weeks monitoring of Google alerts using the search terms – Housing Association , Social Housing , Welfare Reform , Bedroom Tax)

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