Time for Trusted Comms
Rebuilding reputations in the built environment
About the author
Sarah Purcell MCIPR prepared this thought leadership article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
Let’s face it, property developers are plagued by reputational issues. From instigating extortionate, inflationary ground rents to installing cheap, combustible cladding they are cast as the greediest of villains. And PR practitioners, who once branded cigarettes ‘torches of freedom’ for women, have long been associated with spin. A recent YouGov survey found 92% of those polled believed the primary use of PR was to deceive the public. The 16,000 of us employed in PR in the built environment here in the UK are truly up against it.
The case for comms
A reputable PR profession isn’t merely a nice-to-have but an essential attribute for tackling modern society’s ills through communication. Traditional PR is often concerned with issues management. Models such as Grunig and Hunt (1984)  assert that PR performs a ‘boundary spanning role.’ Practitioners should identify emerging external issues that will potentially impact the organisation and prepare a stance and response. Fast forward almost forty years and today’s most pressing issue is both universal and current – the climate crisis right here before our eyes. Its fires and floods are frequent in occurrence and catastrophic in consequence.
It is well documented that 39% of carbon emissions stem from buildings and construction  and by 2050 the number of buildings is set to double. But advances in design, materials and methods of construction offer the means to slow this trend and go a long way towards a carbon neutral future. The World Green Building Council (WGBC) admits that buildings have contributed significantly to the problem but also asserts they can offer a large part of the solution, aligning green buildings directly with the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Communications practitioners within this sector are perfectly placed to bridge the gaps between those who design and build tomorrow’s homes, offices, schools and leisure facilities and those who are ready to occupy them. Given the enormity of the issue of climate change and the UK’s commitment to Net Zero by 2050 we need to get on the case and fast.
Trusted, ethical communications practice is critical to drive the behaviour change needed to meet decarbonisation targets.
The art of listening
So how do we go about this mammoth task? As Scott Cutlip et al . asserted, “effective public relations starts with listening.” And the built environment is a sector screaming to be heard. Architects – a particularly vocal bunch, have been calling for the retrofit of public buildings on the grounds that this is far greener than to demolish and rebuild them. The #RetroFirst campaign , launched by industry publication the Architects’ Journal, has been gaining significant traction in mainstream press  but policy adoption remains a distant ambition.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in partnership with Architects Declare, has gone further to create a comprehensive ‘Built for the Environment Report’  which lays out principles for transition to a fair and sustainable built environment. It encourages those who work within in to ‘break down silos between disciplines and competencies’ and communicate and share information.
In 2015 Prof. Jim Macnamara undertook what was termed the ‘Organisational Listening Project’ , which studied communications practices of government, corporate, NGOs and non-profits in three countries over two years and reported a ‘crisis of listening’ in organisations of all types. He has subsequently gone on to explain the significance of his findings in a wider context, from individual communities to democracies. In complex society, Macnamara proposes, our existence is dependent upon daily interaction with organisations of many types and the dearth of listening and of what he terms the ‘architecture’ for doing so could go some way to explaining the malaise in society.
For those of us in property and construction Macnamara cites an example of ‘failure to listen’  chillingly close to home. Warnings of poor safety standards had been posted on a Grenfell Tower Action Group website four years prior to the disaster in 2017. Even more concerning is that reports identifying combustible cladding had been submitted to parliament from 1999 – some eighteen years before the fire that claimed over 70 lives. Macnamara’s extensive work concluded that ‘listening is fundamental to ethical communication.’
The foundation of trust
There is, of course, a scientific basis on which both the issue of climate change and the principles of sustainable buildings rest and the practitioner must understand effective communication of science to different audiences. Central to this is trust – in science, in scientific institutions, in engineers, architects, builders, developers and in the PR practitioners who communicate on their behalf.
Liz Male MBE, writing on communicating sustainability in construction states, “Collaboration, context and building trust is key, underpinning reputation, influence, relationships and mutual understanding – everything that PR is about.” 
“Collaboration, context and building trust is key, underpinning reputation, influence, relationships and mutual understanding – everything that PR is about.” Liz Male MBE
Building trust in an era dubbed ‘post-truth’ and even ‘post-communication’ is no mean feat. In 2021, Global Communications firm Edelman, then in the 21st year of its Trust Barometer, declared a ‘bankruptcy of information.’  Trust in all types of media was at record lows with 59% of respondents agreeing that news organisations were more concerned with supporting a political or ideological position than informing the public.
The demise of trust is particularly concerning in the context of the climate and biodiversity emergency. Alarmingly, a study by Treen et al (2020)  discovered online ‘misinformation’ about climate change to have been created and amplified by a ‘network of actors’ which fuels polarisation and echo chambers where it is relayed and reinforced.
Another look at the Edelman data however, reveals a trend emerging which suggests a positive shift in societal norms. In 2020  ethics had become three times more important than competence in organisations and by 2021 the organisation had become the only trusted institution and the only one seen as both competent and ethical. What’s more, there is expectation for organisations to be the force for change with an enormous 86% of respondents agreeing that the CEO should speak out on societal issues and 68% that he or she should step in to fix them.
Trust me – I’m a communicator!
This would be an opportune moment for transformational Communications leaders in the built environment sector to step up to the mark – if only they existed in the C-suite! But here too there is hope. According to the 2021 CIPR’s PR in a Pandemic survey , there had been a 50% increase in the influence of PR at Board level in the past 12 months. As for reputation, 56% of agency, consultants or independent practitioners believe the reputation of PR amongst clients had improved and 66% of in-house practitioners believed the reputation of PR among senior leaders had increased. Notably, these changes are attributed to the other major crisis of our time – COVID-19 – on the organisation.
Data from CIPR State of the Profession #PRinapandemic Report
Fit for the future
For sure this is a step in the right direction but we should go further in our quest for validation and improved reputation. In light of the seriousness of issues such as the pandemic and climate change there is a strong case for a globally recognised communications profession, acknowledged by formal qualifications and underpinned by a code of ethics.
A two-year research project in support of the Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communication Management’s aim to create a Global Capability Framework (GCF)  has made some headway in this regard. It studied PR and Communications practice in nine countries between 2016 and 2018 and concluded that there is a widely shared set of ‘capabilities’ to define the profession.
By focussing on capabilities rather than knowledge, skills and attributes the GCF has futureproofed its application. It groups these into eleven headline capabilities which together illustrate its scope and further categorises them as communication, organisational or professional. At the organisational level these capabilities facilitate relationships to build trust and build and enhance the reputation of the organisation itself.
For the individual practitioner they include being trusted themselves as valued council/trusted advisor, offering organisational leadership, working within an ethical framework and development of self and others including through a system of continuous professional development. It is little surprise that many of these are comparable with those attributed to medical, legal and teaching professions – critical positions in modern society and ones held in high moral regard.
Headline Capabilities of the Global Capability Framework
Trusted comms will save the planet
This has been dubbed the Golden Hour for communicators since COVID–19 catapulted Communications onto the world stage. After the WHO’s director-general declared it was fighting an ‘infodemic’  alongside the pandemic the European Association of Communication Directors (EADC), along with other PR and communications associations, launched the Statement on Communication of the Covid-19 Pandemic . It called for honest and effective communication with the maxim, ‘Trusted Communication Saves Lives.’
By far the more potentially devastating issue of our time is the climate emergency. As communicators we must believe that ‘Trusted Communication will help save the planet.’ Those of us in the property and construction sector have a moral duty to help drive behaviour towards a decarbonised, sustainable built environment. Like never before our reputation, along with those of the organisations we represent, is critical. Thanks to the Global Alliance we have the toolkit with which to work towards becoming a globally recognised and trusted profession.
In line with Thomas Kuhn’s assertion that crises cause paradigm shifts, the climate emergency has led corporate sustainability author John Elkington , who introduced triple bottom line reporting, to write about ‘green swan moments.’ These moments will see us moving to a world more harmonious with the environment. The built environment sector must step up to the mark and transformational leaders in Property and Construction PR should help to create green swan moments by shifting behaviours towards a sustainable, net zero built environment.
- YouGov URL https://yougov.co.uk/topics/resources/articles-reports/2019/06/24/majority-people-uk-think-brands-use-pr-deceive-pub [Accessed:04/01/2022]
- Grunig, J.E. and Hunt, T. (1984) Managing Public Relations, Holt, Rinehart and Winston. New York, NY
- World Green Building Council URL https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/WorldGBC-embodied-carbon-report-published [Accessed: 04/01/2022]
- Cutlip, S.M., Center, A. H. and Broom, G.M., (2000) Effective Public Relations, 8th Edition. Upper Salle River, NJ:Prentice Hall
- Hurst, W. (2019) Introducing RetroFirst: a new AJ campaign championing reuse in the built environment [Accessed: 04/01/2022] URL https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/introducing-retrofirst-a-new-aj-campaign-championing-reuse-in-the-built-environment
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- RIBA https://www.architecture.com/knowledge-and-resources/resources-landing-page/built-for-the-environment-report [Accessed: 04/01/2022]
- Macnamara, J. (2016) Organizational listening: Addressing a major gap in public relations theory and practice, Journal of Public Relations Research, 28(3):1-24
- Macnamara, J. (2020) Beyond Post-Communication Challenging Disinformation, Deception, and Manipulation, Peter Lang
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- Treen, KMd, Williams, HTP, O’Neill, SJ. (2020) Online misinformation about climate change. WIREs Clim Change
- Edelman (2020) url https://www.edelman.com/trust/2020-trust-barometer [Accessed: 04/01/2022]
- CIPR url https://cipr.co.uk/CIPR/Our_work/Policy/CIPR_State_of_the_Profession_2019_20.aspx [Accessed: 04/01/2022]
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- Elkington, J. 2020 Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, Green Leaf Book Group LLC