Reputation - greatest asset or biggest liability?
Reputation – greatest asset or biggest liability?
Among the archetypes of villains, the property developer seems to have found a rarefied place. The image is too often one straight out of central casting – slick hair, pin striped suit, loaded, men (they’re always men) lacking any empathy and riding roughshod over communities.
It’s an easy image to conjure and while far from the reality the industry certainly doesn’t always help itself in challenging the stereotype.
In truth, the public profile of developers has perhaps never been worse. Public trust has eroded if not completely fallen away, meaning when it comes to bringing plans forward developers are already behind before they even start.
Yet at the same time the quality of the actual buildings and places that the best in the industry are delivering, in terms of design, sustainability, liveability, public realm and technology has never been better.
This divide is most evident in regeneration – itself something a toxic term that has become a byword for gentrification or ‘social cleansing’. The tensions triggered by large-scale regeneration tend to be more extreme than those within the commercial sector. And understandably so as here the industry is reshaping homes and communities. Yet successful regeneration projects, when completed can deliver huge social value, in terms of improvements to neighbourhoods and reviving local economies.
At the outset though, the idea that a neighbourhood needs to be improved is often more a priority in the minds of the professional rather than the resident. Residents may be well aware of the limitations and challenges in their communities, but it can be patronising and condescending when an outsider points out the flaws – regardless of how well meaning they may be.
Rather than welcoming the people or organisations that are offering improvement, the reverse is often the result as residents feel they are under ‘attack’. Add to that the overall public profile of developers then there is no surprise that regeneration is challenging.
So what can be done to bridge this divide? The most successful regeneration practitioners learnt long ago that authenticity, track record and embedding themselves early within the community are essential. As soon as a site is identified and before plans are made, they get to know the community and do a lot of listening.
It sounds over simplistic, but it works. It doesn’t guarantee a completely smooth ride but having strong and positive relationships gives a stronger opportunity for positive discussion and consultation. It can also engender more honest conversations that are necessary for developers to explain the trade-offs that are almost always associated with complex projects.
But authenticity is essential. Brochures and slick presentations won’t do it – and can in fact engender mistrust. Communities want to see the whites of the eyes of the decision makers, talk to them and decide if they can trust them. Make no mistake, they can spot a fake.
And language matters. People who talk in regeneration and property jargon – units not homes, decanting, assets, ROIs, redlines, mixed-use, placemaking ... and so on – are all likely to raise the hackles of someone who just wants to protect their home. In an industry that can sometimes seem to be drowning in the language of the insider - jargon, technical terminology, acronyms - is it any wonder that communities can feel alienated?
Good communication can be so undervalued. We see it time and time again. It requires careful consideration and a genuine desire to not only convey a message but to listen as well. It’s time consuming, it requires heavy lifting from the senior team and it’s hard to measure in a world where everything in business is measured on ‘deliverables’ and ‘ROI’. It is often easier to give a statistical analysis of the cost of designing and distributing a brochure or the reach and engagement of a social media campaign than trying to measure the outcome of a meeting with a group of residents.
How do you measure trust? There are numerous tools that can help you signpost problems and progress but ultimately it is still an area that requires experience and insight from individuals.
And at times a leap of faith: that being bold enough to communicate well, rather than retreating to the comfort of tick box exercises, will engender positive results, and not just another round of ear bashing.
And that is where so often reputation can become a tangible asset or a liability. It’s where what a developer has actually done speaks louder than what they say they will do. Ambition is a wonderful thing, but the world of property is littered with case studies of organisations that have started off with a bang and withered away, delivering little.
It’s no surprise that most of the UK’s most successful property companies have long histories of delivering on the promises they set. So from the outset, set a tone and narrative that is deliverable and one that the community can buy into – bury the jargon and save any hyperbole for when the project is delivered and the promises kept.
For more on this topic join our discussion at the MIPIM UK Summit on The Reputation of the property industry – How do we promote the real estate industry better? October 14, 5-5.30pm, Sir Horace Jones Stage, Old Billingsgate, London.
A version of this article first appeared in a booklet on regeneration published by Trowers & Hamlins.
The main ‘Jargon’ image was taken by photographer Adam Laycock and features in an article on the death of jargon in ING’s publication Inspiration | Provocation: Essays on the Blurred Edges of the Built Environment. If you would like a copy please email: email@example.com.