Who should tell our #HousingDay story?

Dale CrooksHousing Day – such a simple concept and something that last year and this has blown me away. Last year an inspired idea by Ade Capon spurred thousands of people into action who were united in one goal – bring housing alive by telling the real life stories that often go unnoticed. Housing Day has become a movement in its own right and its amazing to see it being spoken about every day, not just on one day in the year.

As we hurtle towards the general election and ponder on how to get housing up the political and social agenda, it’s all too easy to forget how to articulate what we do in a way that sticks. Many argue that we are pretty dire at this as a sector and for the most part I tend to agree. In my view we should hand this job over to our customers and let them sell the message of housing.

That’s what we have tried to do at Helena, create something faithful to the Housing Day concept. We thought long and hard about how to contribute to this year’s Housing Day and decided to keep it simple and let the stories do the talking.

We’ve worked with a whole range of customers to help them to tell their stories which live in a neat blog site that you can access here. We’ll add to this on an on-going basis and work hard behind the scenes to share the stories from our part of the world.

I’m really looking forward to this year’s Housing Day and am confident that in terms of getting housing noticed and better understood, that this is the way to do it.

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What happens when you mix Play Your Cards Right, Blind Date, Family Fortunes and an old school headmaster?

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Well at Helena Partnerships you have the recipe for a very lively (and noisy) staff event, complete with yellow brick road.

Five months ago we hosted the biggest group therapy session St Helens has ever seen. This was in the format of four mini conferences for all front line staff. We posed real business problems such as how can we keep our rent coming in against a backdrop of welfare reform? How can we create demand for our larger homes when people are literally throwing their keys back at us?

The result of our initial staff events? Eleven years of frustrations and ideas bursting to the surface and 75 pieces of flip chart paper too!

We saw real highs and also lows. Some of our frontline staff were almost in tears seeing how the estates they had fought tooth and nail to transform had started to decline and the number of empty homes grow. Letting our homes because a burning platform as staff linked empty homes with less rent, a reduction in services and ultimately jobs if things didn’t turn around. Cue pop up estate agents, telemarketing in the evenings and weekend and Helena staff becoming walking adverts for why somebody should rent a Helena home.

We took the excessive amount of flip chart paper and turned it into 16 staff engagement projects which we labelled Sweet 16. We launched these on Yammer and in just a few days over 200 of the 240 staff who had taken part had signed up to Yammer. They then chose the projects they felt they could make a real contribution to. The problems they have explored solutions for are not easy. At times they have seemed like an uphill battle but our creative approach to engagement has made hard subjects both accessible and fun.

Since the events staff have worked tirelessly and collaboratively to develop practical business solutions. They have worked with colleagues who they may have never spoken to before. Their ideas just make sense. Some have been implemented already and others are nearly ready to go.

Although this was all about staff engagement rather than strategy development, our frontline staff have reminded us valuable business lessons about thinking about the customer experience and journey, rather than basing services around teams and structures. They have pushed their own boundaries and stepped outside their comfort zones. Divisions between teams have eroded and a common purpose has created one big team.

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As I sit here today, just one session into a series of four, I can hear clapping, whooping and see lots of smiles. I can also see flip chart sheets being filled up which means even more ideas are coming forward.

I am a firm believer that you can achieve just about anything if you get the inside of your organisation right and create an army of passionate and talented business leaders with true dedication.

For more information on how Helena Partnerships approaches staff engagement or to find out more about Sweet 16, contact Caroline King, Head of Communications and Engagement.
Tweet me: @CKingAtHelena
Email me: Caroline.king@helenapartnerships.co.uk
Call me: 07766245492

What Moyes can learn from housing comms

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As you walk through a storm….oh, wait, wrong song

Today’s post comes from Robert Doyle, Communications Officer at Helena Partnerships

If Manchester United were a housing association, how would they be doing?

Some of the stock is a bit old and there is need for development but as a club they appear in rude health.  According to accountants Deloitte’s they are the fourth richest in the world, bringing in £346million last season. They have countless happy, loyal tenants and have embraced the commercialisation that providers must do to thrive in a constantly shifting sector.

Unlike housing associations, however, United’s stock is built on sandy ground. Behind the boardroom door, some £71million of last year’s income was burned on simply financing the cost of the Glazer family’s Wonga-like takeover of the club. Another £48million went on repayments.

As financial fitness becomes ever more important in housing – and under FIFAs new fair play rules – such wasteful debt would be raising more than eyebrows over at the HCA. The spending of £27million on Marouane Fellaini  may also cause “concerns over governance”.

My big worry for Moyes and United, however, is not their finances but how quickly their reputation for invincibility is fading.

Certainly Moyes has suffered bad luck with injuries, decisions and so on. Such is football. However, as communication is my trade, I can’t help but offer Moyes some advice on one area where he is going badly wrong. He is losing the story and when you lose that you lose everything.

Whereas Sir Alex Ferguson plucked luck out of the air with self belief and, like Wonga, expected his players to give 5853% every game, Moyes already has the haunted look of a (whisper it) England manager.

The folded arms, the hang-dog expression, the outbursts of exasperation and rueful glances at the gods above. The faces of Graham Taylor, Kevin Keegan, Steve McLaren swirl around Wee Davey’s restless sleep, calling him like sirens to join the squad of the damned.

Even a kitchen-sink psychologist will tell you leadership is about fearless confidence and constant encouragement. While this starts in the dressing room and training field, games are also won and lost on the newspaper page and in front of the TV cameras.

There is nothing more powerful than the story. Fergie grasped this and grasped the narrative by the footballs. His story was that United are constantly under attack by cheats and fools and villains but as the “greatest” team in the land they must rise above this, never give up, fight to death, fight for themselves and for the millions who support them.

It’s the stories we tell, the stories we take within us, the stories others believe that make the difference. There must be a symbolic exorcism of Fergie’s ghost, new players, new tactics, a new story, a new chapter.

United will soon be back to frustrate their rivals. Juan Mata will surely shine

If Moyes doesn’t survive, however, there’s one crumb of comfort. At least he doesn’t have to contend with the bedroom tax or pay off the Glazers’ arrears.

Working in comms opens doors – a whistle-stop tour of my comms career – by Caroline King, Head of Communications and Engagement at Helena Partnerships

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Cardboard Caroline enjoys team chocolates.

This blog has been written to support Helena’s latest comms recruitment campaign. I wanted to talk about how comms as a career can really open doors for you and will do this by reflecting on my own career. It’s fair to say that Comms has and always will be my passion, regardless of where my career takes me. It has been an amazing journey against a backdrop of changing comms practices, channels a go go and a technological revolution. 

These days my role is more generic but it’s my comms skills and knowledge that get me through each day. I work at a senior, corporate level at Helena in a role framed around business transformation.  I work with peers to make decisions that will change the face of Helena’s service proposition plus how we engage with and develop our wonderful teams. What my comms grounding has given me is the ability to make sense out of mess, turn 75 pages of flipchart into one killer sheet and take a high level view when others are focussed on their own service areas. That’s my contribution to the management team I work in. I have vision and can see the big picture. This can be a curse as I struggle to keep my grasshopper brain focussed on one thing. That’s something I need to crack in 2014.

Right so the look back in time is all true, albeit slightly tongue in cheek. It attempts to show how day to day comms practices have shifted to an unrecognisable point. I guess it also conveys how some really important skills never go out of fashion.

I embarked on my comms career in November 1998. At that point I had never sent an email in my life – seriously. Now I’m surrounded by kit and a walking advert for Apple.

In my first job, the primary method of internal and external communication was fax. There was a fax room and two full-time staff employed to send, receive and distribute faxes. To be honest I found that hilarious at the time, but it was an international company so pigeon English faxes were the norm and effective. My major project there was to create a company brochure to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary. It was a family firm with an old school boss. His brief was: “to make it flashy and spend as much as you want to”. At £25 a copy with five paper types, cut-outs and gold leaf I think I exceeded expectations. My reward was a trip to Argentina to launch it.  Oh yes, I forgot to mention that it was dual language Spanish and English and I did the proof-reading!

The next two years were at a college where I learned the trade of print and paper – Pantone pads on my desk, proofs sticking out of my bag every night and days spent sitting alongside designers who I envied completely.

If you are concentrating to this point you will see that in the first 3.5 years of my career I got to grips with fax, email, print and advertising and not much else.

In August 2002, I strapped myself into a rollercoaster and went on a complicated 11-plus year ride around communications, engagement, websites, social media and much more. I’m still strapped in if you are wondering.

Helena was one of the early adopters within the housing sector of customer insight. I mean we really got to grips with it. Until that point I used to wonder how Tesco knew I needed a 50p off voucher for Weetabix and why I waited for ages when I tried to cancel my mobile contract but got a cheerful hello within two seconds of trying to set up a new one. Easy – big businesses are framed on intelligence and customer insight. Helena’s use of CRM and customer insight allowed the comms team to get a lot smarter about the solutions we created.

I mention customer insight because it was a turning point in how we deliver communications and how we manage our internal relations. This was the start of the “don’t come to us with the solution” phase of Helena comms. We treat our internal clients like an agency would. We spend time building up a relationship with our clients, anticipate their needs and offer support when we know it’s needed.

What customer insight meant on the outside was the dawn of multi-channel communications. We may use five or more communications methods to get a message out there because we know from insight that our customers will respond to one of those ways. We know that because we understand their preferences and behaviours. This might seem a bit OTT for a housing provider but the approach has served us well and past and present team members comment on how the daily practical application of these techniques has blown their mind. Somebody commented to me yesterday that they didn’t know how I managed to keep all those thought processes and considerations in my head at once. I guess after all these years I take it for granted but it is exciting every day and you can’t really knock that.

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The inner workings of a comms pro’s mind

 Comms is ever changing. People tell you their business problems and your clear-thinking comms approach helps them to reach a solution and agree a way forward. It’s about relationship building, having confidence in your own ideas and knowing when you back down. The most successful comms people aren’t the ones who sit in the corner writing excellent copy. I have met and worked with a fair few of those over the years. True comms professionals have people skills, emotional intelligence and can recall something somebody said six months ago and link it to a thought they have just heard. They are advisors with a huge amount of responsibility and an innate sense of what’s right and wrong.

People often comment that I think differently to them. If you read my blog from earlier this week about coping mechanisms for comms people then it might be obvious why. Yes, comms people are different but you will rarely meet a bunch of people with so much passion and drive, builders of brands and fierce protectors of reputations. Our recruitment campaign is called #NoTwoDaysTheSame which just about sums up why I am so lucky to work in and around comms.

I’m really looking forward to welcoming new members to Helena’s Comms Team in the coming months and supporting them on the broadest communications grounding out there and some amazing new multi-channel campaigns.

The challenge of communicating welfare reform

Today’s post comes from Janelle Hardacre, PR and Media Officer at Helena Partnerships…

Having come from an agency background, I have been lucky enough to deliver comms for a huge array of different organisations and brands, from NHS Trusts to ice lollies. However, I was a complete ‘newbie’ to the housing sector when I joined the Helena communications team last year.

Judging from the various 2013 round ups from the housing press, it’s clear that I joined during one of the most challenging years the social housing sector has ever experienced.

This has been a huge eye opener, particularly from a comms perspective, and it’s been really interesting to watch how housing associations, including Helena, have approached the challenges of getting communications right in the midst of huge changes like welfare reform.

I’ve already learnt so much from my Helena colleagues and other housing communicators in 2013. Here I explore what I feel are some of the key considerations, learnings and innovative approaches coming from the sector to answer the challenges of communicating benefit changes to such diverse communities.

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Customer Insight

As communicators, it’s vital that we understand as much about our audiences as possible. By analysing customer insight into demographics and motivations, communications can be tailored to ensure that messages are targeted, and reach tenants in a format which appeals to and will resonate with them.

I’d argue that the housing sector needs to start working more like the private sector, using data to develop a strong understanding of what our organisations’ brands means to customers and how customers interact with us.

Multi-channel approach

We know that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ answer for how we communicate with tenants, and as a sector it is important that we are flexible with our approaches and continue to share best practice to ensure tenants are receiving the most appropriate advice and support.

Now more than ever, we need to consider how to maximise income and minimise cost at the same time as providing effective communications. Every channel has its place in the communications mix, so it’s important to develop a tailored strategy for each tactic, with tangible KPIs in place.

Personalisation

One of the barriers to communicating with tenants can often be making sure communications cuts through the noise of adverts, junk mail and sales calls, and that they really gain an understanding of how changes to the benefits system will affect them personally in pounds and pence, rather than how it affects society in general.

We have found that something as simple as addressing a person by name and communicating exactly how they are affected by the changes in a tailored mailer can have a noticeable impact on the number of people engaging with the organisation.

Embracing digital

There is often an assumption that social housing tenants lack access to computers and therefore the internet. Our digital insight indicates that there is a strong appetite among customers for digital services and in a survey of one of our most deprived estates, 77% said they had access to the internet at home.

It’s important that information and advice about welfare reform is easily accessible online. Video has also been successfully utilised by several housing associations, to explain changes in an engaging and digestible format, often attracting thousands of views.

What more can we do?

Working in one of the most challenging operating environments in recent memory, it’s ultimately the job of social landlords to make it as easy as possible for all tenants to interact with them and for those affected by welfare reform to feel they can get in touch.

Inquisitive as my colleagues are, they have asked me whether I would have approached welfare reform comms differently had this been a brief that had come into my previous agency. I’d like to think that a lot of what we’d recommend would be similar to the effective work which has been done to date.

Building on this, I’d look to try and harness the power of word of mouth. In marketing, nothing is more influential than a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member, so it is important that we are creating content that is not only informative, but that people are compelled to share. As the saying goes, ‘content is king!’

I’d also say, as communicators we should never stop looking outside the housing sector at current trends for ideas and inspiration.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Leave a comment or tweet us @helenapartnersh 

Wearing your heart on your sleeve at work…

This is the first foray into blogging for #HelenaComms, so a little introduction…
We do communications, marketing and engagement for North West housing provider, Helena Partnerships. We often get asked to share our insights and views on comms and how we deliver them to customers, colleagues and stakeholders. So, being the digitally-savvy group that we are, we thought it was about time we shared our musings online. Here goes…
First post falls to me – Lisa Middleton, Communications Manager. Other posts will come from the comms team, including Caroline King, Janelle Hardacre, Peck-Har Tan and Rob Doyle.

Actual blog…
Wearing your heart on your sleeve in the workplace.
The phrase ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ seems very personal, so naturally I wouldn’t usually associate this with the workplace. Of course, I like to think that I show a human side at work but I previously always worked to the professional-only principle. Since joining Helena nearly four years ago though, that façade has gradually fallen, and recently I got to thinking about workplace personas. This led me to the ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ phrase and why I think it’s important to do that.
What about maintaining professionalism and workplace etiquette I hear you cry?! Well, guess what I think you can do both, and this is why: When I was offered the job at Helena I was over the moon, I couldn’t hide how pleased I was. Then I was asked if I was ready to move from my current role because I had been so passionate about my work and what I was delivering. That passion was exactly why I wanted to work at Helena – because it personally appealed to me. That was wearing my heart on my sleeve.
Showing passion and being honest about thoughts and feelings has led to some fantastic creative comms by our team this year and excellent team working. Working in social housing, I believe it is essential to bring your ‘human’ side to work. Of course there is making decisions, protecting the business and knowing when you can’t do any more, but showing your real side helps empower people to make the right decision and be confident in that. This approach means that the team always considers the customer, colleague or contact who will receive our communications and we tailor accordingly, either by method or tone of voice. This also supports us getting the best value for our work to ensure that the ultimate beneficiary is always the recipient.
Wearing your heart on your sleeve is equally important inside an organisation. When a colleague has an issue, at work or at home, it helps if you have shown your human side, empathy, happiness and sometimes sadness. We sit very near to a team dealing with the most difficult issue of the moment – welfare reform. Everyday we know that the team is having the heartbreaking conversations about whether someone has enough money to pay rent, heat their home or even eat, and they are trying their best to support our customers through these hard times. It’s having personal empathy and a strong network of support among colleagues that has made this team so successful in helping people these major changes. A recent survey of our frontline staff dealing with welfare reform revealed that 100% felt supported by their colleagues. That, for me, is a prime example of wearing your heart on your sleeve in the workplace and why it is important to do so. This close-knit team know that if those difficult conversations get a bit much one day, they can be their true selves, talk about their feelings and get the support they need from colleagues.
Last week was very bittersweet for Helena and was part of the catalyst for writing this post. The day we were told we met all 196 standards for Investors In People Gold Award was the same day we were told a colleague had very suddenly died, aged just 44. While I didn’t personally know Neil, I knew that a lot of my colleagues would. It was really sad to think about Neil’s family and those who worked closely with him. Indeed, my first interaction the next day was in the stairwell with a colleague who was crying about the news. My natural instinct was to offer comfort in the form of soothing words and a hug. This might not have been for everyone, but not for one minute did I think my professionalism would be questioned. I did what anyone would naturally do at seeing someone in distress. While work-based hugging is not my usual thing, a number of times this year I have provided hugs as comfort, goodbyes and congratulations and guess what? I think it improves relationships and that can only be a positive, therefore makes me better at my job.
In light of both pieces of news last week, the comfort was knowing that we would all be there for each other now and in future situations, wearing our hearts on our sleeves.