It’s an interesting space we social entrepreneurs occupy when it comes to putting conventional business wisdom to use. Many social enterprises have a captive audience, or multiple audiences where one set pays for what another set benefits from, (like Quids in! magazine). And even when communications are your day job, like they are at the Social Publishing Project, we’ve witnessed the value of investing in building links and telling people not just what you’re doing but where you’re coming from. Oh, like with this blog, for example.
In these cash-strapped times, though, it’s worrying to see so many community stakeholders cutting back on comms. I want to call out to landlords, authorities and third sector organisations: "Your tenants, residents and service users are a huge asset. For landlords, they are second only to the value of your property portfolio. Downgrading investment in your comms could prove a false economy."
I don’t think they’re treating those communities with contempt but they are overlooking the value of having their customers on side, and nothing loses customers like keeping them in the dark or taking them for granted. Worse, would be losing their goodwill and here I think social landlords in particular should take note: If your customers cannot walk away and you need them to play their part, (paying rent on time, for example), then if you don’t keep talking, you risk your relationship and their willingness to comply when their own budgets are under pressure.
Social housing is under attack. At best, the government is sharing the hurt around by imposing restrictions on English landlords rent, introducing the right to buy for housing association tenants and abandoning direct benefit payments for all but the most chaotic tenants. It's actually more politically driven than that but easily justified in the context of cutting the cost of Housing Benefit, raising revenues for future house-building and streamlining the welfare payment system. We are, after all, all in it together.
The Chancellor must have regarded social landlords jealously, sitting pretty with huge revenues, (a lot of it coming through benefits) AND capital to secure finance against. The writing was on the wall from the first announcements Universal Credit, as far back as 2010. Many landlords retrenched and only emerged from a bunker mentality when it was clear that UC was going to take the best part of a decade to roll out. Still, emerge they did, blurry-eyed but resolved to act as businesses - landlords first, with an as yet undefined social remit second. Some CEOs who valued communities and inclusion as core to their business toppled, to be replaced by more corporate-minded strategists.
It's worth reflecting on how, at the same time, the regulatory framework was unpicked with the abolition of Tenants Services Authority. With it went some key responsibilities for tenants: A requirement to involve them and to communicate with them. Indeed, less requirement to invest in anything other than bricks and mortar. Landlords first, and an as yet undefined social remit second.
Businesses that don’t communicate eventually come unstuck with their customers. Commercial ones will notice it in their sales, as consumers drift away. Public sector and not-for-profit organisations will witness it in satisfaction surveys, reduced numbers accessing services and, it’s pretty well guaranteed, in terms of income. Over time, landlords and local authorities will be competing for payments from hard-pressed Universal Credit claimants, for example, who will have other commitments to cover too.
There’s more to making sure you’re at the front of that queue than shouting louder. That’s when a relationship comes in. Let’s face it, commercial companies like energy firms, or high interest lenders for that matter, have spent much longer refining their skills in sweet talking their customers into paying them first.