If PR professionals are serious about managing reputation, they have to be serious about understanding the reasons for that reputation and helping businesses tackle underpinning issues such as diversity.
At a recent group chairs meeting at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (I represented the CIPR’s construction and property special interest group, CAPSIG), my fellow CIPR Council colleague Laura Sutherland got us talking about the business case for PR, and it’s been rattling around in my brain.
During the late 1990s, I was lucky enough to work for a CEO who felt communication was critical to boardroom discussions across a group of construction professional services businesses. As a result, I was expected to join regular meetings of the MDs of all the companies in the group, and to offer communications advice, which I did.
However, I don’t this think this level of PR input is common – at least not in the construction industry where I’ve mainly worked. When it comes to legal or financial issues, lawyers and accountants sit around the boardroom table, but faced with a communication challenge, it’s rare for a PR professional to feature, even though our discipline is the one looking after an organisation’s reputation.
Business issue: the poor image of construction
In the construction context, I have been vocal about the poor image of the industry. My frequently expressed view is that construction gets the reputation it deserves. Until it tackles some of its core structural issues, it will always struggle to attract people into the industry and to be seen for the industrial and intellectual powerhouse it could be. 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.
Action is clearly needed to tackle gender and other diversity issues. While these affect the PR sector, the imbalances in construction are even more profound. The divisional meetings I attended in the 1990s, for example, featured just one woman, outnumbered by 18 men, and, in 2015, even in ‘white collar’ disciplines such as surveying, I read this week that just 13% of chartered RICS members are women. On site and among the trades it’s often worse. There are higher proportions of women in admin, legal, accounting and in PR/marketing roles in construction, but UK construction remains overwhelmingly pale, male and stale.
Diversity in construction and PR
Next week, CAPSIG will be looking at diversity issues, holding a panel discussion on diversity in construction and PR on 6 May. We will have an impressive and all-female panel (rare for a construction event perhaps!):
- Liz Male MBE FCIPR (a former CAPSIG chair, now chair of Trustmark UK and a member of the government’s Construction Leadership Council)
- Elaine Knutt (editor, Construction Manager)
- Chrissi McCarthy (managing director, Constructing Equality), and
- Bridget Bartlett (deputy chief executive of the CIOB, and chair of the Construction Industry Council’s diversity panel)
If PR professionals are serious about managing reputation, they have to be serious about understanding the reasons for that reputation and helping businesses tackle the relevant issues. PR is not the “colouring-in” department; we don’t just do “press relations” or “spin”; we don’t “put lipstick on a pig”. If something is broken, we should be helping businesses to fix it, not papering over the cracks.
Hansford recognises that it’s vital to engage with young people and society at large; PR will be critical to that engagement, and to tackling the diversity issues and other business challenges the industry faces. The major changes needed won’t be achieved quickly, so part of PR’s role is to manage expectations and support a long-term reputation-changing process – not get hired to run an industry week once a year, promote an industry hashtag or produce a glossy brochure highlighting just the good bits.