This afternoon, I took part in a panel session at the HOUSING 2010 event in Harrogate, organised by the Chartered Institute of Housing. BBC Home Affairs editor Mark Easton and Stella Manzie from the Scottish Executive, joined me on stage. We each spoke for 5 minutes and then answered questions.
When you think about it, housing ought to be at the top of the media and political agenda. After all it is one of the few things apart from death and taxes which affects us all. So why is it seen in either a negative light, or viewed with complete indifference? I tested this out on a small focus group last week. I asked them to give me a word they immediately associate with the word housing.
By far and away the most popular three were “Benefit”, “Crisis” and “Claim”. All negative words.
But then I asked them to do the same with the word “home” I got three very different words: “Life”, “Comforts”, “Cooking”. You can relate this to the reaction to the policy of selling council houses to their tenants. To the media, politicians and public we were selling council houses. To the people that bought them, we were selling them their homes. A house is an inanimate object built of bricks and mortar. A home is something very different – there’s an emotional attachment, even love. People cry when they move. I’ve even seen someone kiss a front door on the day they left their home for the last time.
So my message to the conference was that to change the image of housing there needs to be a big PR effort to associate the word with something more tangible than an inanimate object. Politicians, in many ways, will reflect the views of their electorate. Their views on housing will be formed by the letters they get – and most of them will be negative. So how do you counter that?
Two ways: Conduct a hearts and minds campaign. The House Proud campaign seemed to understand this message and was a success in that it did what it said on the tin. But it needed much more visibility across social media. I wonder how many people visit the Inside Housing or CIH website.
Secondly, remember what Margaret Thatcher said about Lord Young? “David doesn’t bring me problems. He brings me solutions”. All lobby groups should think about that next time they want something from government or a politician. Too often, lobby groups go to government with a problem, expecting them to provide a solution. The successful lobby groups and sectors are those that go to government saying, here’s the problem, we recognise your dilemma in this, but here’s a solution we think you will find politically acceptable and get some credit for.
If you’re offering a solution which isn’t politically acceptable, no amount of logical argument works. At that stage it is down to emotional blackmail. Joanna Lumley is proof of where raw emotion can win over any amount of logical argument, but she's the exception, not the rule.
But you’re only going to win with emotional blackmail if you have an army of supporters on your side who back you up and that’s why it is so important to use social media to build such an army of public support.
Think about it. There are millions of social housing tenants, both in local authority housing and housing association homes. Huge numbers of people are employed in the sector and allied industries. I have no idea how many people rely on their employment on housing related activities but there must be hundreds of thousands if not several million. They are all stakeholders and all potential allies in helping decision makers “get it” on housing.
The media can be an ally and an enemy, of course. The slogan Bad News is News and Good News is advertising is very relevant here.
TV documentaries are never made about the wonderful achievements of a particular housing trust. But they are made about housing disasters. TV dramas tend to reinforce housing stereotypes – look at Shameless. And I try not to. Look at Desperate Housewives.
But of course with the fragmentation of the mainstream media, there is a greatopportunity to break through this and get people to dance to your own agenda. Within 5 years I am sure there will be a Housing Internet TV Channel, where the sector could make and broadcast its own programmes.
In the end, any sector wanting to bump itself up the political agenda is going to have to do it itself. No one else is going to help them.
I have to say this wasn't exactly the size of audience I was expecting to turn up to listen to our pearls of wisdom, but the session was scheduled in the hour before the England game started. So instead of the expected 4-500, we actually only had about 100. But I hope they got something out of the three of us!