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Dec 22 2014

“The poor image of UK construction”

The UK construction 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 its own behaviour and communications.

CAPSIGlogo-2014The CIPR has been running a 12 days of Christmas CPD campaign highlighting some of the information, guidance and ideas generated by the Institute and its members this year. On the seventh day of Christmas my Institute gave to me: #PR2015: “a free 28-page downloadable guide to the biggest trends and issues affecting public relations in 2015. It covers sector-specific issues from a regional, national and international perspective.”

I wrote the CIPR construction and property special interest group (CAPSIG) contribution to this document, still dwelling on the “Image of the construction industry” issues raised during two conferences I attended in November. This is what I wrote:

Crossrail - Woolwich station box (February 2013)While many are rightly keen to present a more professional image of the public relations industry, the traditional media image of other business sectors – such as construction – is a continuing challenge.

For some, PR is to blame. After all, they argue, construction has some amazing projects. They talk about London’s Shard, the 2012 Olympic Games infrastructure, and Crossrail (photo shows Woolwich Crossrail station box, February 2013), and yet they insist “we don’t get the media coverage we deserve”, or “we’re not marketed properly”. As a result the sector is facing a skills shortage widely attributed to “the poor image of construction”.

The truth is that, notwithstanding some landmark projects, perceptions of construction are often heavily influenced by consumers’ household experiences, particularly of small- and medium-sized businesses engaged in repair and maintenance. Innovations such as the UK government’s world-leading building information management (BIM) drive rarely get a wider mention. Instead, we get SME “cowboy builder” stories, financial woes, safety scares, and other negativity.

Talking to industry audiences, I have underlined 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 its own behaviour and communications.

Fortunately, this is recognised. The joint government/industry Construction 2025 strategy, published last year, devotes a whole section to improving the sector’s image. Chief construction advisor Peter Hansford says “fundamental change is required in how the construction industry is perceived by the general public”, and “engaging young people and society at large” tops his list of four areas where action is needed (above health and safety, diversity, and improvements in the domestic repair and maintenance market).

However, the sector’s inertia, innate conservatism and its often short-term view could hold it back. Too many organisations sit tight in their disciplinary silos, their leaders not recognising they are part of the problem. Construction is not a monolithic entity. Its many constituent parts need to begin to change, and then continue to change right through to 2025 and beyond (some industry organisations, thankfully, are taking a long-term view: the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, for instance, is promoting an “Infrastructure Decade”).

Peter Hansford.jpg

Chief construction advisor Peter Hansford is on Twitter: @HansfordPeter

Stereotypical views of construction won’t be altered overnight but they can be gradually eroded and replaced by new perceptions based on trust-based engagement with businesses, large and small, which deliver profitable but fairly priced services efficiently, safely, on time and on budget.

Communicating and sharing these outcomes will help reinforce the new perceptions, and, like the rest of business and commerce, people at every level in organisations can play their part by keeping abreast of and using new media. CIPR’s construction and property group surveyed industry PR practitioners about their use of social media, and found more than half felt the sector lagged behind in its adoption of social media. So getting industry people – not just PRs: everyone from boardroom to site – up to speed in using all communication channels is going to be an essential part of helping them transform the current image of construction.

3 comments

3 pings

  1. Tim Fitch

    Paul,

    My own business has done some work with one of the largest names in construction. We found amongst the top dozen or so people mentioned on their web site 3 had no presence on LinkedIn, 1 had 2 connections, 5 did not describe the industry they are in as construction, only 2 had made an update in the last two weeks. Like your broader survey work I do not believe this untypical. Senior leaders at industry events all espouse change as necessary but often when you challenge them to adopt something new themselves such as social media, you get the “I am too old to learn” or “its not for me”.
    My own view is that most leaders find the construction industry suits them when viewed through the timeframe of the economic cycle. In tough times the discussion is about collaboration with clients, low volume and zero margins. In better times the conversation soon shifts to skills shortages and selective tendering. Of course the same is true on the client side but in reverse. In tough times it is about value, competition and cost reduction (buy at zero margin). As times improve the concern will be about resource, over heating and collaboration.
    The industry needs to shift its mind set 180 degrees on both sides so that at all times the focus is on achieving high value generally through collaboration.
    If many more of the leaders in this industry started discussing these issues on social media there is more of a chance that many of these seemingly intractable issue would find solutions.

  2. Leonie Thomas

    Good post. This is something I think about a lot.

    For me the root of this problem is how marketing is perceived generally across the industry. Unfortunately as a discipline it is not sufficiently integrated into projects and businesses and its value isn’t properly understood.

    Marketing is still very much on the outside as far as the development and construction process is concerned. Until we are involved properly, it will be an uphill battle to efficiently communicate the story of building.

    1. Paul Wilkinson

      Thanks, Leonie
      If more businesses’ leaders had a better understanding of marketing – the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably – and of “the 7 Ps”, they would appreciate that it has to be core to their whole ethos. It is a strategic discipline that should guide the whole positioning of an organisation’s product/service, its pricing, etc – not just its presentation.

      Unfortunately, too many construction leaders think marketing is just about promotion, and regard it as something that can easily be turned on and off as required. It is therefore no wonder the industry (and many of the businesses within it) retains such a poor reputation. It ultimately comes down to poor business leadership, in my opinion.
      Best wishes – Paul

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