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Why do communicators have such trouble communicating?

publication date: Apr 5, 2009
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author/source: Malcolm Harrison
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harrisonFor the first time in more than a generation, the problems of residential housing – selling, renting and social – are being taken seriously. Commercial landlords are showing signs of recognising that there is no moral imperative to automatically raise rents and up-front collection. And the nation’s dinner tables are no longer a-twitter over rising house prices. A new mood of realism is afoot.

Yet, despite this sea change, there is still no Department of State with a minister of full cabinet rank charged solely with responsibility for housing and property in general. There hasn’t been one for more than 50 years. Planning has yet to be reformed, infrastructure projects are piecemeal; little attention is paid to construction as a driver of the economy.

Professional bodies, trade associations, think tanks, interest groups, corporations and government all come forward with their side of the same story in a manner that is likely to leave the public bemused and angry or apathetic and cynical. This is too frequently made worse by the messages being peppered with Eurobabble and mid- Atlantic corporate speak.

And the statistics used to back up these arguments are no longer believed; not necessarily because they are inaccurate but because they are so often perceived as being used selectively and out of context, solely to perpetuate self-interest. Meanwhile, projects are changed and original objectives abandoned and the original message is maintained for fear of any public suggestion of a U-turn. Corporate communications have become a form of wallpaper.

Housing, retailing, road building, offices and airports all impinge on everyone at some time or other and people do take anintelligent interest, even while considering that they, themselves, are the ultimate experts. This is the expert opinion, the opinion on the street, that is unimpressed by unquantifiables expressed in New Speak such as “accessible”, “affordable” housing for “stakeholders”. Instead, what they take seriously are empty homes, empty shops, empty building sites.

The also take seriously the failure of government, the town hall, the developer et al to provide rational, plain English explanations, arguments and forecasts – and not prefaced by an “Executive Summary”, clearly tailored to spin. It could be that the lack of plain speak is what leads so many to believe that depression is not only in the economy, but in the mind too.

It is constantly expressed throughout the property industry that all the component parts share the same objectives and that the only minor differences are in the implementation. The fact of the matter is that the original, possibly concise, objectives are often waylaid by the message and the messengers. It can be the communicators, the press offices and the PRs, bogged down by a mindset that has nothing to do with communications or news, who fear to speak out without being “signed-off”. And the professional communicators are far too often afraid to tell their board members, their line managers and their clients What to Say, When to Say, How to Say – and too afraid to ask Why Say?

Instead of working to such simple rules of communication, corporate obfuscation has become the rule of the day – and the media often has no choice but to accept it. Editorial budgets have been savaged even during the boom years. Reporters and specialists are given no time to check facts, cut through the promotional speak, corporate speak and afraid to speak. Fear rules the news sources and contaminates the news outlets.

Communicators in the property industry should use the opportunity delivered by the current crash and tell everything like it is; and make sure everybody hears, internally and externally. Out there in the real world, even over the dinner tables, the problems of property are being taken seriously and the old virtue of value over cost is once again recognised. This is a year to get honesty and plain speaking back into corporate communications. The results might surprise us all.

Malcolm Harrison is Principal of Harrison Communications (PR). As consultants they launched the Buy to Let initiative and the Tenancy Deposit Scheme and the appeal to build the first Black Rhino sanctuary at Nakuru, in Kenya’s Rift Valley.