A Comms event for tenants

An inaugural CommsHero event for tenants will take place in London on 23 May 2017. Jonathan Lawn, Head of People Services and Communications at Phoenix Community Housing, explains the motivation behind the day.


How many social housing tenants attended the NHF’s Communications and Marketing Conference on Tuesday?

I couldn’t make it this year. But I’m going to take a very wild stab in the dark, and guess none.

What did they miss out on? An introduction on changing the narrative around housing associations. A session called ‘winning over hearts and minds’, about public perceptions of the sector. The familiar refrains. The hardy perennials. Why aren’t we better at getting our message across? Why is there so much stereotyping of social housing residents?

Probably the right questions. But are they being delivered to the right audience?

Let’s step back for a second and consider who actually owns the narrative of housing associations.

Is it a group of communications and marketing professionals gathered at a London conference centre?

Or is it the people who live in the UK’s four million social rented homes? These residents are surely the authentic voice of housing, the people who may be able to talk about what it’s like to be homeless, to live in desperately overcrowded conditions, or face a daily struggle due to benefit cuts. In short, the people with the stories that can genuinely win public hearts and minds.

Why isn’t our sector much better generally at harnessing the voices of both housing association staff and residents? After all, as every good retailer knows, customers are the greatest advocates of any brand.

We seem to half understand this. We talk about telling our residents’ stories, and we happily rock up with our cameras and notebooks to try to record them. Yet we often seem to forget or overlook that they’re perfectly capable of telling their stories themselves. All you need these days is a smart phone.

Scroll through Twitter and I can easily find hundreds of other housing comms people, but only a handful of identifiable tenants. Yet I know housing associations up and down the country have resident communications groups, or editorial panels, or involved residents who have views about communications. Why are they so invisible to me?

It leaves a great digital vacuum where these resident voices should be, and vacuums are there to be filled – filled with Benefits Street and all those ‘scroungers’ who inhabit the tabloid press.

As a sector it’s time we changed tack. Instead of attempting to act on residents’ behalf, why not talk them through some of the tools and techniques we use daily, so that they can start to apply these themselves? Why not provide advice on how to effectively influence communities, or influence policy makers? Why not encourage residents to join forces with corporate accounts and tell our story as a sector together?

And why not be brave and genuinely encourage residents to challenge us publicly when things aren’t what they should be, and then treat this as essential feedback to help us improve?

All of this prompted me to send a Tweet at the start of the year. If you work in housing communications, it’s practically impossible to miss CommsHero, and I wanted to see if the organisers would be willing to do a session aimed at a different audience.

The response from Asif and staff at resource has been fantastic, and I’m delighted we’ve since enlisted the support of Jenny Osbourne at Tpas (it all goes to show what can happen when you send a simple Tweet!).

We’re very excited to welcome tenants from across the country to The Green Man – Phoenix’s HQ and community building – in a couple of months’ time. We hope they’ll come away as ambassadors of what’s possible, as new public housing voices, and that they’ll be able to encourage more tenants to follow suit.

Communications and marketing teams in the sector do some fantastic work, but until we do much more to properly engage with tenants and enlist their voice, we’ll continue to operate at far below our potential full capacity.

The CommsHero event for tenants is about starting to change the narrative of housing associations. We hope it’s just the start.

CommsHero for tenants takes place on 23 May 2017 at The Green Man, London SE6 2RP. The event is open to any social housing tenant, along with resident involvement and resident engagement staff.

Speakers will include Alison Inman, Sinead Butters, Jenny Osbourne, John Popham, Helen Reynolds and Fran O’Hara.

This is a non-profit event with places priced at £95 (inc VAT). Book your place by clicking this link.