Make It Go Viral: Trust in Crisis Comms

I began self-isolating a week ago when the government announced a stay-at-home policy for those with symptoms. In housing, I wonder if there is a better way to communicate what’s happening than by being over-cautious and dependent on government announcements.

Man sitting on the toilet who has run out of toilet roll

In times of crisis, it’s important that people pull together to reinforce the social fabric and the other materials that bind society together. Navigating the massive amount of information that has been circulating about Coronavirus and coming to conclusions to inform decisions is already proving tricky for individuals and organisations.

As a carer with a compromised immune system, whose wife has a condition also on the ‘risk list’, last week’s oddball government ‘herd immunity’ approach immediately and instinctively set off alarm bells. While there seemed to be an inexplicable acceptance that the government was “following the science”, it seemed a different science to that practised in faraway lands and even our close neighbours.

Italy, notably, was suddenly struggling with the extreme demands a virus for which humans have no immunity and no vaccine was inevitably going to impose.

There is another angle to my distrust of our current government, rooted in its useless housing policymaking and a learned distrust of its spokespeople. While it might feel reassuring, perhaps rational to believe the government wouldn’t actively do anything to put people at risk, this notion has been smashed to pieces by government policies of the last 10 years.

As people stockpile toilet paper in anticipation of the Universal Credit ****show, the idea that government decisions don’t hurt and potentially kill people is anathema. Just within the last couple of weeks, a group of respected leading charities asked the DWP again to investigate the deaths of people whose social-security payments had been wrongly cut. Both policy and the DWP handling of these cases led directly to unnecessary, avoidable deaths.

In short, with eugenicists in Number 10 and a long history of the Prime Minister being a lying toerag, for many people there is nothing reassuring about daily press briefings from a guy whose fear, incompetence, and insincerity still bleeds through everything he does, even – especially – at a time of international crisis.

So, what can be said of the response of the housing sector to the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in?

A week and a half ago, banks announced they would allow customers to defer mortgage payments if their incomes were affected by Coronavirus. This was a logical decision reached by a strong, independent business that had done some competent, realistic modelling about what the effects of the pandemic might be on its customers.

If there is a question in this piece, it is why haven’t the UK’s social landlords, calmly and publicly, announced some contingency plans for its tenants and businesses? It would not even be necessary to assume the worst in order to put in place a couple of key bullet-points about how landlords are going to react to tenants who might suffer a loss of income for any one of a number of reasons as a result of the virus and its spread.

Where there have finally been responses from some housing organisations, they seem to have focussed on two main issues. One is, rightly, the safety of residents and staff, including closing offices and for those that can, ensuring people work from home. It’s not clear what support will be available for people who have now realised it doesn’t matter if they don’t go to work, but hopefully there will be things in place.

The other main point has been that people will not be evicted throughout the period of the crisis. This has only come about because the government has made a national commitment about it that still lacks enough detail to see how the suspension of evictions will be managed at time of writing.

This has raised an alarm for me, and certainly a few questions. In the day-to-day comms of the UK housing sector, there is a solid belief that landlords, housing associations especially, are great at comms and are thriving, independent, successful businesses.

Then, at the first sign of a crisis that needs clear communication with tenants – not just internally but out in the world, too – there is public silence other than on those issues where the government has acted.

We must consider one of the points in Bobbie Hough’s helpful post about crisis comms: “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.”

A complete failure to act or communicate on any change in rent policy might be a real worry for tenants and people outside landlords trying to ensure people can get through this crisis, but for landlords it’s a natural response. While so much is still unknown, a promise to reduce or waive rents could have serious financial ramifications.

Still, there needs to be an urgent, open discussion about rent. In exceptional circumstances, exceptional responses are necessary. Part of the regulatory requirement for landlords Financial Viability ratings is that they make contingency plans for when things go wrong. Jokes about planning for a zombie apocalypse might raise a smile, but at least they would have meant landlords had considered what might happen if people can’t pay rent.

The overwhelming sense of the current general housing-sector response is that no matter how many jobs people lose, how many hours are cut, how much income is lost, no matter how sick people get, no matter what tragedy families might befall, the rent eats first.

Landlords are likely to be communicating directly with tenants at the moment, but there are a couple of problems with this being one of the only public responses.

Firstly, they can’t prove it. Twitter might not be the only way of communicating with residents, but it is a great way to share that you are doing something. Secondly, it is a way of comparing responses and to open the measures being taken to some form of scrutiny. In addition, I haven’t heard anything specific from my landlord other than the usual advice to get in touch, which feels potentially naïve of them.

The sector has not yet had to respond to the Social Housing Green Paper or to many of the issues of trust raised by the Grenfell Tower fire, but an insular response in the belief landlords are always doing the right thing at the right time surely can’t be the approach we are expected to accept is now necessary.

All through my twitter timeline and in discussions with carers and friends, it is clear that across the country there are numerous community responses cropping up – local facebook groups,  Nextdoor groups – informal support networks that do not include housing providers.

The sector preens its collective feathers every time there’s an opportunity for soundbites about how tenants are at the heart of everything they do, or about how as organisations they are embedded at the heart of communities. These theories have not come to the fore now the chips are down. Overseeing a system promoting long-term rent arrears risks landlords acting against people and communities at a time of crisis. This kind of damage could be difficult to repair once the crisis has passed.

Further intervention on income and rents is required from government, but landlords must end the apparent radio silence on this issue at the time of writing. As things stand, tenants and leaseholders should expect a more coherent strategy from their landlords, who should be reaching out to include and enhance strong emerging resident and community responses.

Later, perhaps, there needs to be a conversation about the the growing gap between what landlords say about themselves and submit entries to award ceremonies for; and what it turns out they actually do when true innovation, true adaptability, and true community cohesion is needed. For now, there needs to be a shift to public transparency and accountability.

I am very grateful to those people within and without the housing sector who have contributed to this piece by being open about what they are doing at their own organisations and what the wider implications of the crisis might be on sector responses.

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