Black’s Blog: If you put people’s backs up, they go to the papers

Black's Blog: If you put people's backs up, they go to the papers

Jimmy Black picks up themes from the latest episode of the Scottish Housing News Podcast, with SFHA’s Sally Thomas, Holyrood PR’s Chris Fairbairn and co-host Kieran Findlay.

A while back I contemplated calling my nascent Public Relations business “The Black Arts”. I thought a whiff of fire and brimstone might bring in the kind of clients who see media as the devil’s work. People who need attention diverted from their dodgy practices and embarrassing failures.

But then I remembered that (a) I’m a terrible liar and (b) I wouldn’t want to work for these people.

Some years ago I had to apologise to an eminent and slightly scary Scottish journalist for telling him a lot of nonsense. It was the same nonsense my boss told me. There are at least two sides to every story, but honest PRs cannot get the other, more positive, side across to a journalist if their credibility has been undermined.

So “The Black Arts” was never going to be a winner, as I’m just not fiendish enough. Some people are, and they do resort to telling lies, stretching the truth, threats or a modicum of character assassination to swat away complaints or potentially embarrassing revelations.

I’d argue that’s seldom a good strategy, as there’s always a chance the truth will emerge. Seldom? OK, never.

But in social housing, most of us are untroubled by investigative journalists. Our main challenges in communications are engaging over rent rises, explaining net zero or persuading people with positive input ventilation not to switch it off.

Getting people to squeegee their showers, heat their homes when they’re out or keep furniture away from the walls is another thing. Dampness and mould are now officially intolerable, but when you know that the house you have provided does not match the needs or the income of the family living there, it can be too easy to point the finger at tenant lifestyle.

The folks at the sharp end of this are housing officers, not PR people; Sally Thomas from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations believes that housing officers are now much less likely to take a ‘blame the tenant’ approach. Speaking on the Scottish Housing News Podcast, Sally says, “it’s more likely than ever that we have housing officers in people’s homes, helping people understand what causes damp and mould in their home, but not blaming their lifestyle.”

For me the key is ensuring that the people at the top of an organisation and the people actually delivering the service give a consistent message. Technical knowledge is essential, but so is knowing how to communicate sensitive messages. Workforce training is where the PR magic happens. If you put people’s backs up, they go to the papers. That’s when you need our other guest on the podcast, Chris Fairbairn from Holyrood PR. Or someone like him.

I asked him if he practised the ‘black arts’. As you’d expect, the answer was a firm “No”. We discussed how much information Chief Execs facing challenging situations should share with their PR officers or companies, and I thought his answer was excellent.

“What we say to all clients in these crisis situations is that don’t try and save face in front of us. Tell us the warts and all. Tell us the reality of the situation here. If we’re going in with one hand tied behind our back, then it isn’t going to end well.”

The discussion ranged widely over a 42-minute episode, and you can listen on your phone or read the transcript.

The Scottish Housing News Podcast is co-hosted by Kieran Findlay and Jimmy Black. All episodes are available here as well as on the following platforms:

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