Cover Story: The truth is out there

Samizdat for social housing

The social housing sector has been on the losing side of a fierce propaganda war, but with a general election looming, the time has come for a renewed fight to win the hearts and minds needed to secure its future

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing magazine, October/November 2014

WE may not like it, but we’re talking propaganda.

The word has long-since fallen out of favour, seldom used these days, and hardly surprising since it has sinister connotations but it’s alive and well and in use all around us to this day. Generally speaking, it’s considered a ‘bad guy’ thing, even though the ‘good guys’ perfected many of its techniques.

The propagandists of old bequeathed their dark arts to a range of modern day commercial and political functions, generally accepted as respectable: advertising, marketing, communications, public relations.

In a sense, these discrete (but overlapping) functions are the media savvy descendents; they do much the same and so much more.

“Public relations uses many of the tools of marketing and may be used to promote a particular product but often it is employed in pursuit of a slightly different goal... PR is often concerned with selling persons, government policies, corporations and other institutions,” said the organisation Corporate Watch in a 2003 overview of the industry.

“In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on disasters, undermine citizens’ campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

“In a modern democracy the mechanisms of propaganda and control must necessarily be far more subtle than those employed by more repressive regimes, and PR or ‘spin doctoring’ has become ubiquitous in the Western political economy.”

Corporate Watch highlights something that is ignored at the sector’s peril: and that’s the overt – and covert – political purpose that public relations (marketing and communications and all the rest) serves in the wrong – or the right – hands. It’s a partisan venture; less about the disinterested dissemination of information, and more about setting agendas, claiming the ‘common sense’.

Propaganda, or public relations if you want to be polite, aims to manage public perceptions, shift attitudes, encourage lines of thinking, shape social attitudes, and – to paraphrase Josef Stalin – become “engineers of souls”. The reasons for all this may be well intentioned, even necessary; conversely they may be cynical and self-serving.

A propaganda war, if you want to be uncouth about it, is where truth must wrestle in the mud with lies, until observers may find it difficult to distinguish one from the other, but that’s not to say that truth inevitably becomes a casualty.

No doubt that sounds a little strong for social housing’s ears, but it ought to be familiar with the darker aspects; it’s long been on the receiving end of negative stereotyping, especially in terms of how tenants are portrayed. Indeed, one might say the cruel caricature of tenants as ‘workshy scroungers’ is an example of a marketer’s dream – it’s a ‘brand’ that long-since went ‘viral’. Sadly, disdain for the poor has long been an easy sell.

So, where does all this leave social housing? Caught in the thick of it. The sector – landlords and tenants alike – is on the receiving end of a propaganda onslaught. But it’s not helpless. We live in a raucously pluralistic society, one of the reasons so much effort is put into such attempts to shape public perceptions; the sector doesn’t have to cede the field. It can challenge how it is perceived.

“Barack Obama’s first election campaign was focused on one word, ‘change’. For social housing it should be two words, ‘more homes’,” said Mark Thomas, chief executive of Word Association. “It’s pleasing to see that the sector is united behind the Homes for Britain campaign launched during the Autumn’s party conference season. Similarly focused campaigns such as the NHF’s Yes to Homes, and SHOUT (Social Housing Under Threat) need to reinforce, work together, and be part of this overall ‘more homes’ message. This call has more clarity and mass appeal than other messages debated within the sector.”

Audience is an important factor; the sector has many, so its campaigns to win hearts and minds in the run up to the next election inevitably involve multiple fronts. This is going to push its marketing and communications teams, whether external agents such as Thomas’s company or internal teams to the fore in their campaigning efforts. But they can’t rely on one strategy for all fronts; with so many audiences, targeted strikes work best.

“As with all good marketing communications, knowing the audience and crafting appropriate messages is key and this is no different in social housing,” said Jean Clarke, customer communications manager at Merseyside’s Liverpool Mutual Homes (LMH). “Our audience is wide-ranging and includes but is not limited to tenants and residents, staff, stakeholders, the sector, local councillors and MPs, business, community groups and industry bodies. Communicating with all these groups is not an easy process; we’ve got to tailor the message accordingly and use the most appropriate medium.”

Even politicians aren’t immune to the seductive wiles of a well-conducted campaign, as a recent effort by the First Ark Group revealed. Posters are a mainstay of propaganda campaigns, and the organisation put this to good effect when it teamed up with the Social Economy Alliance (SEA) to let those in the Westminster village know in no uncertain terms – the revolution is coming.

For Left and Right alike, there was much to catch the eye in these mashed up portrayals of well-known political figures, some of them iconic figureheads of ideological movements that have rocked the world. We had Margaret Thatcher as Che Guevara, or was it the other way around?

Then there was Winston Churchill as the last Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev; Boris Johnson as Karl Marx; a striking Ronald Reagan as Fidel Castro, complete with Havana cigar; and finally a rendition of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lord John Prescott.

The aim was to push the SEA’s 2015 election manifesto, which is pushing for greater emphasis on social enterprise and the social economy; the best ideas of Left and Right, as it were. By all accounts, this unashamedly political campaign caught the eye, and the attention, of its intended audience and more.

“We call it our manifesto for UK-wide prosperity and it’s about how we can create more enterprising places so that we have stronger local economies that can contribute to the UK. We want responsible business where society profits,” said Bob Taylor, First Ark’s chief executive. “The [posters] are an attention grabber, but the important point is it’s got to have some substance and solutions underneath. We’ve had a lot of feedback from MPs and MPs’ agents wanting to know more about what we’re doing. The campaign was trying to raise awareness among potential policy makers and MPs so in that respect it’s worked exceptionally well.”

Alone, this social economy campaign obviously won’t win sufficient hearts and minds needed for social housing to secure its future, but it demonstrates how the sector can challenge – even change – perceptions.

There’s another word to consider alongside propaganda, one that emerged out of the old Soviet Union dissident movement – and that’s samizdat.

Propaganda doesn’t have to be a dirty word. As the election looms, perhaps it’s time the sector started pushing a little samizdat of its own. There are hearts and minds to win; an established order to crack. Go to it.

This article first appeared as the cover story for the October/November 2014 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 17 November 2014

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