“Leaders in construction who are either ignorant of or scornful of social media are failing the younger generation.”
This is an updated and expanded version of a post – Could an app improve the image of construction? – which first appeared on my ExtranetEvolution.com blog last week.
The recent Constructing Excellence 2014 national members convention attracted about 90 people to talk about “The Image of Construction“. Just over a week later (24 November), I was in the audience at the CIOB’s “Inspiring the Future of Construction” conference, when some of the same themes were also discussed.
The CE event was curated by CE’s early career movement, G4C, and they invited speakers from the Considerate Constructors Scheme, the Construction Clients Group, Women in Construction, Turner & Townsend… and me.
As well as being a long-time supporter of Constructing Excellence (I sit on CE’s steering group and am a CE Collaborative Working Champion), I am also chair of the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations Construction and Property Special Interest Group, and it was in that role that I spoke to the conference. Earlier in the week, I had asked advice from Chief Construction Advisor Peter Hansford and from Liz Male, chair of Trustmark (also a former CAPSIG chair) – and the feedback I got from both was similar:
- General perceptions of construction are often heavily influenced by negative experiences as consumers at the SME level
- We have some landmark projects (the Shard, the 2012 London Olympic games infrastructure, Crossrail, etc) that are world-leading, but which are often overlooked in favour of “cowboy builder” stories and other negativity. (And both these points were reiterated when Peter Hansford spoke at the CIOB event.)
Communicate, campaign, collaborate!
I reflected these themes back to Constructing Excellence’s audience, highlighting some of the initiatives already under way (some of them cited in the government/industry Construction 2025 strategy), but underlining – as any good PR professional would – that the industry’s reputation is the result of what it does, what it says and what others say about it. It can’t control the latter – it can only control what it does and what it says.
(This is not just a PR view. Sir John Armitt told the CIOB conference: “The best people to alter the image of the industry are the people in it,” adding that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are all now part of the communication mix, so the industry has to “engage with young people on their territory.”)
And, in keeping with CE’s collaborative working ethos, I said the industry needed to stop thinking of itself as a monolithic entity and start to identify changes it could make across its many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and (most importantly, perhaps) its customers. Using social media is also increasingly vital (why doesn’t the Considerate Constructors’ Scheme include its Twitter handle, @CCScheme, on its site notices?).
At the CE event Ben Pritchard and Antonio Pisano presented a G4C perspective on the “Image of Construction” incorporating many of the points raised by previous speakers, but also – like me – highlighted the role that social media and new technology could make. They showed a short video outlining an app concept….
I watched this with particular interest as I have seen and written about more than a few mobile construction applications over the past year or so. Since the conference, I have suggested to the G4C guys that, rather than seeking to build an entire app from the ground up, they should talk to existing developers who have already created apps that do almost everything they envisage – mentioning GenieBelt, in particular.
Incidentally, since GenieBelt launched on 5 November, it has gained users in 200 locations across 50 different countries. The team includes UK-trained construction professionals with a good knowledge of delivering industry-specific apps.
The future of construction?
Having directly addressed the CE conference, I think that audience got my message that construction’s words and deeds have earned its current reputation. But this message – clearly echoed by Sir John Armitt – was clearly not shared by everyone at the CIOB event. One contributor blamed the media for being “too negative” about the industry, while another suggested construction was “not marketed properly…, [it] is not a recognisable brand”. (I was seriously tempted at this point to put up my hand and talk about putting lipstick on a pig).
Fortunately, the CIOB conference also heard from some young people: ‘Generation Z’ teenagers yet to sit their GCSE’s who had taken part in the Design… Engineer… Construction education programme created by ClassOfYourOwn’s Alison Watson. It was genuinely inspiring to hear a 14-year-old from a school in Balham, south London talk about how an early interest in tools and Lego was boosted by the programme and he now wanted to be a structural engineer. Alison, plus teachers from schools which have been sponsored through DEC’s Adopt A School scheme, showed that construction could be made integral to the curriculum, inspiring young people to design buildings rather than plastic key-rings. And we heard how young people’s ready grasp of technology (Minecraft got mentioned, again) saw them using building information modelling and other software – showing that the stock images of construction could be rather more high-tech than the usual hard-hats and cranes.
This was the most upbeat part of the day, I think. Clearly, such STEM-related initiatives need to be energetically and creatively expanded (recalling a BigBang careers fair experience, Alison memorably said “kids are more engaged with singing bananas than the built environment”). They must then be sustained as long-term, multi-disciplinary campaigns so that construction and built environment courses aren’t always the last resort of students, their parents and teachers. Ian Billyard from Leeds College of Building showed a graphic, in which just 1500 people in West Yorkshire applied for construction-related courses, less than half the number who applied for IT – both hugely outnumbered by tens of thousands applying for courses equipping people for office administration or healthcare work.
My EE post excited a comment from a friend and client, Invennt‘s Tim Fitch, in which he lamented the inertia of many existing construction people to be the change they wanted to see. I expect he would have applauded Sir John Armitt’s encouragement to engage with young people on “their territory,” but insisted social media is everyone’s territory – not just the young’s (Tim, 50, is an enthusiastic advocate of social media). In my view, and to paraphrase Tim’s own comment, leaders in construction who are either ignorant of or scornful of social media are failing the younger generation.
[Disclosure: I have provided PR consultancy services to GenieBelt. I attended the CIOB event at the invitation of the organisers.]