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May 17 2017

PR can help construction modernise, not die

Modernise or DieBy combining construction-specific communication expertise, strong industry leadership, and a clear vision of the future, we can tackle structural issues in ‘the industry currently known as construction’ that perpetuate its poor image.

This post was stimulated by two things – a discussion about construction-specific communication skills, and a conversation about the need for strong leadership and a clear vision of the future of construction.

The need for construction-specific communication skills

Chris Ashworth, a stalwart of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Construction Industry Group (CIMCIG), asked, on LinkedIn, What are your thoughts on a marketing qualification specific to construction? (following the launch of construction-specific marketing training by the CIM – read this Marketing Week article).

In his article, Chris says construction is a sector where specific knowledge is needed, alongside more general marketing skills. It is a B2B sector, but a highly complex and fragmented one, often working to long decision cycles. Construction covers an enormous range: from domestic repair and maintenance through house-building to delivery of major national infrastructure projects. And its personnel range from ‘white van men’ to industry professionals such as architects and engineers. Supporting the delivery of projects – often procured on ‘lowest price’, delivered by transient short-lived groups of individuals (I hesitate to call them ‘teams’ as this implies they all share a common goal), and prone to delays, disputes and cost overruns – makes marketing or PR in the sector a complex challenge.

The need to address structural issues in ‘the industry currently known as construction’

The second stimulus for this article was listening to the former Chief Construction Advisor (2009-2012), Paul Morrell, who spoke at a Construction Industry Council Economics and Policy Forum at the ICE in London last week.* His talk, reflecting on his review of the role of industry training boards (publication delayed due to the General Election), focused on what the sector needs to do to resolve the skills crisis. He covered some depressingly familiar themes, notably industry fragmentation and silos

  • “Problems in industry are structural and cyclical.”
  • Disconnections between end-use and delivery don’t help.
  • “Where is the motivation for innovation or for training, where nobody owns the whole process?”
  • Too many contractors think skills shortages in trades are “not my problem.”
  • “This industry doesn’t have supply chains. It has phone directories.”
  • Continuity of workload makes continued delivery of training (and expenditure on it) manageable ….

Concern about the industry's future is not evenly spreadAnd in relation to the skills issue (inextricably linked to the “image of construction“), Paul also highlighted the need for the industry to communicate a stronger vision of its future purpose, and – as part of that vision – to modernise:

  • “A better presentation of ourselves is needed, with jobs at the end of the process.”
  • The CITB does not address future skills capacity – it is mainly concerned with meeting current needs. “Too often, we design training to keep people today, not to help them tomorrow.”
  • The Construction Leadership Council is developing strategy but needs mechanisms to deliver the vision of what it wants.
  • “Do we work in an industry we can genuinely be proud of?”… and, with an ageing workforce, “concern about the construction industry’s future is not evenly spread”
  • And, supporting the ‘Modernise or Die’ message of the October 2016 Farmer Review, “Integration, digitalisation and prefabrication should be three core themes for future of construction.”

Leadership + vision + professional communicators = change

After 30 years working in the construction sector, I wish we could educate the many different parts of the construction industry about the strategic role and functions of ‘marketing’ or ‘public relations’. Too often, it is seen as tactical work done by “the colouring-in department”, something that can be turned off when times are tight, and C-level understanding of the communications disciplines is often woeful (small wonder that they often ask PR folk to measure PR in terms of advertising value equivalents, AVEs, not business outcomes). Some marketing or PR skills may well be transferable, but in-depth knowledge and experience of how the industry is structured and operates – and being able to counter this poor understanding of marketing/PR – is critical to being able to deliver strategic support.

The sector also complains that it is poorly perceived. The “image of construction” is often raised as though it is, somehow, the media, marketing’s or PR’s fault! Too often, I hear comments such as “We all know our industry is great, but we don’t communicate it well enough”….

As I have written several times before (“To change the “image of construction,” first change construction” a year ago, for example), construction needs to realise that its reputation is fundamentally the result of what it does and how it behaves. If it wants to improve its image it needs to address the root causes of these perceptions.

It should take Paul Morrell’s advice: integrate, modernise and digitise. It should break down the industry silos, focus on a shared vision of the future of the sector, think long-term, be customer and end-user centric, procure on best whole life value not lowest price, be lean and collaborative rather than bloated and adversarial, and invest in 21st century methods and technologies. Fairly rewarded for genuine value creation, such an industry invests in R&D, innovates, pays suppliers on time, rewards workers adequately for their value adding contributions, and delivers built assets that continue to satisfy social, economic and environmental needs for years to come. And arguably, such an industry would build a better reputation – or image – and be more attractive to people to work in.

[* I attended the CIC Forum as a representative of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a CIC associate member. I chair the CIPR’s construction and property special interest group, CAPSIG, sit on the CIPR’s Council and Board, and chair its policy and campaigns committee.]

1 comment

  1. Tim Fitch

    There is no doubt that construction needs better PR. It has sat back and taken blow after blow from official (i.e. government sponsored and sometimes authored) reports on how poor the industry is. None of these reports has really examined the issue of why the industry is the way it is. I agree the industry must improve, modernise and become more embracing of technology. However, none of this will change the fundamental characteristics of the sector. It is project focused and cyclical. The industry has evolved to cope with these conditions. It never gets credit for its ability to scale up and down fast. During the last financial crisis, the industry had to scale down dramatically in some parts by +30%, this was achieved without a corresponding rise in the number of benefits claimants.

    The other issue which is totally under appreciated is the level of innovation and R&D the industry invests in. Now here the reasons are due to the internal perception of delivering projects and ignorance of the tax code. The UK government runs a scheme to reward UK companies through generous tax credits for qualifying R&D costs. Construction has a very poor uptake of this scheme, this was the evidence used by Mark Farmer in his report to lambast the industry for poor investment. At Invennt we do not agree with his interpretation of the facts.
    In our work with a wide range of construction businesses, we have seen significant claims being made at multiples of the average figures Mark Farmer quotes. Our belief is that there is a significant untapped opportunity for UK construction to embrace the HMRC scheme and transform its finances.

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