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S1E2: Why Everybody Hates the Property Sector

In Episode 2, Reputation Coach Daisy Powell-Chandler interviews Ghislaine Halpenny from the British Property Federation, who explains why everybody hates the property industry: they are seen as big, pinstripe-suited, Bentley-driving, cigar-smoking men.

As well as issues with diversity, the sector has struggled to articulate the social and environmental value that it adds. We dive into all of this, talk about the role that an industry association can play in improving the reputation of a sector, and the discuss why investor and member reactions to the Covid-19 crisis have been a pleasant surprise – even as a challenging reputation has impacted the sympathy and financial aid available from the UK government.

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Ghislaine Halpenny 0:01

My name is Ghislaine Halpenny. I'm the Director of Strategy and External Affairs at the British Property Federation.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 0:11

Welcome to why everybody hates you, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think and feel about your organisation, then you're in the right place.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 0:28

My name is Daisy Powell-Chandler. And today I'm talking to Ghislaine Halpenny about why everybody hates the property sector.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 0:44

Welcome, Ghislaine. It's really lovely to have you. I'm gonna kick off with a hard question. Why does everybody hate you?

Ghislaine Halpenny 0:52

Thanks, Daisy. Just what you want in the morning.

Ghislaine Halpenny 0:56

I think I think it's a real challenge why everybody hates us and does As you know, we did a piece of work around this last year in the year before to try to try and establish, firstly, whether it was really true because we'd always had our suspicions. And then to try and dig a bit deeper and find out why that was indeed the case. People don't always like or think they don't like the property industry, because they don't really understand what it is. And in many cases, they don't like the bit of it that they think we are. So that might be the bit of it that they have their daily connection with, whether it be an estate agent, whether it be construction work, they don't necessarily see the broader picture. And that provides huge challenge, but also a huge opportunity. Because what we discovered is that was lots of people really know what lots of people don't like us. Even more people feel completely neutral about us because they simply don't know. And those people are the people that we can try and turn around to to become favourable towards us in the long run. And just so that everybody out there listening understands what's your role in all of that. So I will For the British property Federation, which is the trade association for the commercial real estate sector across the UK, so our members are often those with long term interest in commercial real estate. So whether it be people who build offices or blocks of build to rent flats, and shopping centres, infrastructure, big distribution, sheds all of that sort of thing. So it's the people who build something and then keep maintain the ownership in it rather than building it and flipping it on.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 2:28

Okay. And those problems that you've talked about, and the reputation the reasons why people don't like you or think they don't like you, what are the key reasons in there? What are the big red flags?

Ghislaine Halpenny 2:40

And from the research that we did people think that the sector is largely made up of wealthy men. They think it's very London centric, and they think often it's very elitist. And whilst a lot of those things can be said to be true, and certainly that's highlighting some problems that the sector really does have. The sector is also really quite stunning. First, and there are and we use the word real estate and it covers a multitude of sins. So there is everything there from construction to estate agency to those investors in, in community in place. You really want to create better places for their children, their grandchildren, and the generations to come. And that's and that, you know, we say those things glibly as comms professionals, but it is actually true.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 3:22

Yeah, no, I really exciting opportunity, though, right now pretty hard times to be talking about those opportunities.

Ghislaine Halpenny 3:31

Absolutely. And the current COVID-19 crisis brings all of this into a really difficult place, we are not able to build as much as as much as we want the investment market is looking is we think going to be looking quite sluggish going forward. One of the challenges with the real estate sector because of the way that the planning system works, is that you have to really see the practical knock on effects 12 months later. So the investment decisions being made now will be around Whether to put in a planning application now, that kind of thing might only come out a bit later so it really is a delay factor and the data to connect around that is really hard. They're also really big problems and challenges around town centres and high streets. And you know, with with a lot of retail being closed with people being told to stay at home or at least stay alert. We have a reduced spend and reduced footfall those shops are shut a lot of those shops can't afford to pay the rent. A lot of those shops even if they can't afford to pay the rent don't want to pay the rent because they see others not paying rent. And that means that for the landlord for the commercial landlord, there's very little income coming in. Commercial rent is paid quarterly. So much cool today, we know that about well that we know that rent collection figures are down. We've got June quarter day coming up and the word that is being used right left and centre by everybody is that it will simply be a bloodbath. Government understand that. But commercial landlords are not always the ones who get the big sympathy vote. They see it as the big You know, pinstripe suited Bentley driving cigar smoking? Men who really don't need a helping hand. But actually, often it's pensions. It's our pensions, it's your pension, it's my pension. And it's the the the investment that those people put into the centres to the town centres that keep our towns alive and well.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 5:18

So it sounds like that reputation, of being elitist of not being diverse, has had a lot of real world knock on effects over the last few months that you're seeing concretely, the impact of not being seen to be a sympathetic sector to help out in something like a coffee crisis.

Ghislaine Halpenny 5:40

Absolutely. And it's something which is which is a real challenge for us and in our conversations with government. There are bits of government that understand it, there are bits that really get it. And certainly from the work we did a few years ago, we can really see that we do we did we did an MP a big MPs panel. And if you do that there are some MPs of different

Ghislaine Halpenny 6:00

Ones who really get who we are, but an awful lot who don't really, and their mailboxes are full of people complaining about Mrs. Bloggs, his garden shed next door, which is a bit big and it looks the light and etc, etc, etc. So when you say real estate, that's what they associate it with, rather than the big investment, often international investment that comes into this country to make the places that we want to shop and spend our leisure time and send our children to school.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 6:24

How are you going to change that? What have you put in place to try and mitigate those reputation effects?

Ghislaine Halpenny 6:31

Well, I think some of it is about the language that we use, you know, we the real estate sector was a terrible one for using an awful lot of acronyms. And, and that in itself is is very, very challenging for lots of people, including us to remember what the rules are. So it's changing the language we use around around it. I think one of the things about the COVID crisis is actually produced, it produces a huge opportunity. And one of the really interesting kind of practical changes that it has provided us with that local authorities usually hold planning committees. So where your planning application is decided by offices in a draughty town hall or Thursday night, once a month, they now hold them online. So when people have got nothing else to do at home, and they're sitting there thinking, oh god, I finished Netflix, what am I going to do with my time? Now I know I'm going to go and watch a planning committee. And actually, the what we're seeing beginning to see is that those audiences for planning committees are completely different demographic, and that it is no longer you know, the person who feels particularly strongly about this or that the other, actually, it's people often those not often those but including those with protected characteristics are really able to engage with the process. So there are lessons we can learn. And it would be great if we can take those through to what the new normal or what the post COVID world or whatever we're supposed to be calling it now looks like and trying to engage that that wider audience.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 7:50

That's really interesting and something I hadn't heard before. I don't think I would have guessed that taking planning committees online would have massively increased uptake.So reaching out to people with different characteristics, changing the language, anything else that you and the sector are doing to try and change your reputation to allay some of the problems you've had this time around.

Ghislaine Halpenny 8:12

We're telling the story about what the sector does. You know what it's not about the big glass, monolithic buildings, it's about creating social benefit, environmental benefit, and also the financial benefit to the financial benefits is widely understood. And people assume that that is indeed you know, the contribution to the economy, that people get that and that's great. When asked a bit more broadly about the social environmental, that was the bit where everybody felt a bit more kind of wobbly and a bit more squeamish. And actually, if you look at the way that most of our members work, and you look at most of the commercial real estate sector, their contribution certainly to the to the social well being is is enormous, and that's something that that's really important to them, their investments are not going to be healthy if they don't create somewhere where people want to where there is you know that the happiness and well being index is a high. And all of these things are stories that are there but are simply not being told very well or in any sort of collective way.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 9:14

Hmm. But it's very difficult isn't it as as a membership organisation with resources that are limited? How do you go about creating a consensus about how to measure those things and how to bring them together?

Ghislaine Halpenny 9:29

Well, we are working on what that might look like before in a pre COVID world world we were talking about and looking at some sort of social, social, social impact measurements. And those are obviously going to be more challenging now, partly because we aren't quite sure what our members are going to be able to collect this year partly because the story that we're going to tell this year needs to be a bit different. The sector is doing a lot for its for for communities that are being hit by COVID. It is, you know, changing the way that it works in order to adapt for it. So we are in the process at the moment of working out what that what that new report might look like and and thinking about when when would be a good time and how to publish it? And are there different ways? I mean, obviously, we talked to different stakeholder groups in a different manner.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 10:15

So at the moment, you're engaging very intensively with government. But have you looked at how the sector speaks to consumers directly or to other stakeholder groups beside government?

Ghislaine Halpenny 10:27

We have in it's really interesting, there's a huge variety and approach across across our across our membership, and some who do it very well, are really aware of the fact that you know, that draughty townhall is not going to speak to many of their residents. And actually, it's about door knocking. And it's about getting out there on the ground and having those conversations and having those conversations in a way that doesn't make it feel like you've got a man in a suit with a briefcase who's come to show you a pamphlet about what they're going to impose on you and your community. It's about someone who's a bit more approachable, arriving with a blank sheet of paper and Some ideas and making people and helping people feel that they're being allowed to feed into the process and A, B and A are being planned with rather than planned to. And that that's, that's really important and sharing that best practice is something that we really try and do. You know, the sector is as broad as it is long and so there were pockets of fantastic, excellent, you know, best practice. And then there are pockets of, of organisations who probably don't do it quite as well or quite as naturally.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 11:28

Who is doing that really well.

Ghislaine Halpenny 11:31

I mean, some of those who do it really well, some of the biggest states, you know, they've got they've got deep pockets, they've got very, very established feet, in established feet establish roots in in their location so someone like Grosvenor does that really really well. And the kind of the big REITs so the big that's the real estate investment trusts so someone like British land someone like land securities land sec now, do it extremely well and they've got the resources to be able to do it and they are forward thinking and that you know, that that's, that's how they get to where they are.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 12:03

Hmm, I think that's particularly interesting because I suspect they are those landed estates are some of the ones that possibly in people's minds most clearly conformed to that man in a Bentley stereotype that you refer to earlier. And yet it sounds like they're doing some of the best work to engage is that because they needed to, to, to allay some of those suspicions? Or is that just because they are planning for the longer term, and therefore their priorities are a bit different.

Ghislaine Halpenny 12:36

It's a combination of the two, you know, you can't have a good relationship with your with your wider stakeholder group unless they trust you. And, and that, that is the key. One of the key words throughout all of this is is trust. And there's a huge amount of of worry about real estate in that big, big, nasty corporate developers going to come in and do something to you. And if you don't trust your developer to come in and do something that's going to be of benefit, then then it all falls to pieces. I mean, a lot of the criticisms or other criticisms perceptions around, you know, wealthy, elitist, and particularly male, are true. And it is a sector which is trying very, very hard in all of those directions. And there are an awful lot of organisations doing really, really great work to broaden the appeal at a at the early stages of real estate. So to make sure that we get a really diverse group of people coming into the sector, if you're going to plan great places, if you're going to make great places, you've got to make places that are going to appeal across the community. And the only way you can do that is by having people from across the community making those plans in the first place. That's the only way you can really understand your customer base. So those organisations are out there trying really hard and doing great work in schools, doing great work in universities trying to make sure that we that we get that diverse population. The challenges are you know, enormous and are often quite slow to move through. There are still difficulties in getting, you know, women through the system. If you if you look at the kind of entry level statistics for gender diversity, it's not too bad. Women get to their mid 30s, early to mid 30s. And often that becomes a bit more challenging and then they move on. So a lot of organisations are doing really good work to see what that's about, is that about maternity leave, is that about the way that organisations work around flexible working childcare requirements and all of that kind of thing? Or is it the culture? Is it that there's still a bit of a boys club about going to the pub at four o'clock on a Friday afternoon and actually lots of people don't really want to do that anymore. That's also alienating for people from different kinds of backgrounds. You know, that again, that kind of heavy drinking society that often is do this the sector feels it has some kind of fondness for is is quite alienating for other people sometimes.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 14:55

Is that frustrating? Because you in your role are the holder of the reputation of the sector. Is that frustrating because you don't necessarily have a direct key into changing those things.

Unknown Speaker 15:14

It's frustrating on a number of different levels. I mean, it's not going to be something that I single handedly am going to be able to change in the next couple of years. It's something that hopefully, when my small boys grow up, and they say to me, I'd quite like to go and, you know, work in the real estate sector, which is quite possible given the current fondling fondness for diggers, that I won't feel that it's a it says kind of elitist, homogenous group of people.

Ghislaine Halpenny 15:41

So seeing that really slow, incremental change can be quite a challenge. So you've got to take your wins where you can and I suppose the sector coming together and realising that diversity is is not only you know, something that's nice to have and something that looks really nice on pictures where you haven't just got white men, but actually business critical is a huge step forward.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 16:02

I think it can be a real challenge for us communications practitioners, because we see that there are reputation issues or risks in a particular course of action and can sometimes feel that we don't have as much influence as we might like in those areas. What's your experience been of trying to communicate risk and to help your members in your organisation understand reputation risk?

Ghislaine Halpenny 16:31

It's a challenge. You often you know, as you as you know, you get those conversations where you stand up when you give a presentation around what people think of you. And everybody's it's all but it's not true. And I know that already, or words to that effect of varying severity. And then it does, it does sink in and one of the, one of the, I suppose opportunities that we have as a trade body is that we can use our convening power we can get people in In the room together, we may not have the deepest resources we may not, you know we are we are a very small team in London, we're a team of only about 20. So there's only so much we can do. But we can get people to come and talk to each other. And we can get people to work from each other, work with each other, and to learn from each other. And that's something that is really powerful. And we have a fantastic membership who are very, very good at leaving their commercial, competitive hats at the door, and will come and work together for the for the greater good of the industry moving forwards. We've talked about how COVID is hitting the industry and the bloodbath that is going to be caught today.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 17:37

Do you think that these reputation issues will be seen as more important in light of that bloodbath? Or will they necessarily be hit because commercial imperatives will drive people back into their individual silos and, and put people's backs up and make it harder to do that kind of collective work that you're talking about?

Ghislaine Halpenny 17:56

It's really interesting. If you'd asked me that question four or five weeks ago, I would have said, I think this is going to be really difficult. I think we're going to come out of this somewhere in a place where commercial imperatives are going to absolutely be the driving force, we're going to potentially go back to a bad old world with bad old ways where, you know, these things get forgotten about, and we're going to have to start again, conversations over the last couple of weeks. It's been quite clear from the membership that their investors and their boards, and when they've been doing their, you know, their shareholder roadshows, the questions that are coming to them are around ESG investment. And how are you doing with that? And is that still important, and it's still important to us and that can't be forgotten. And that drive, ultimately be will be what shapes the next few years. So whilst there may be some parts of the sector who have a very difficult 12 months in protecting some parts of the sector who don't survive, for those that are there, it feels like those drivers are very much front of mind for everybody else. And that's really reassuring. What that translate to the real world is a challenge. And and particularly around you know, the the intake of people that you're there's going to be a generation of I'd say a generation or being a couple of years of people who will come out in the job world will be the job market will look very, very different. But that did feel like a really reassuring moment where we've where we've been having those conversations.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 19:20

Deeply reassuring. Do you think that will impact your programme as an organisation?

Ghislaine Halpenny 19:28

I hope it means that we can keep going on the really good track that it felt we were wrong. I hope it means that we can keep you know that we that we can measure that social impact that we can have those conversations and we don't simply had to go back to the sort of negotiations on the on the on the more commercial basis solely.

Ghislaine Halpenny 19:48

I worry that some of the smaller organisations particularly that focus around diversity and inclusion we'll find it difficult as the members inevitably have some shallow pockets, that they will find it difficult to stay alive and to stay supported. And, you know, that will that will inevitably be the case. But we will have to see where we end up.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 20:12

Do you get the sense when you're having conversations with government, that they are inclined to include more conditionality around ESG type performance?

Ghislaine Halpenny 20:25

Interesting. Up to a point, yes. I think if you look at if you look at the driving forces around organisations and agencies, such as homes England, and that's, you know, that those kind of ESG principles are really, really important not only to the agency as a whole, but also personally to the executive. And they certainly put a lot of stall by, by, you know, those those kinds of things. So absolutely, there are bits of government, where that really is a driver. Whether that's the case that costs board, I'd be less I'd be less convinced at the moment, but yeah,

Ghislaine Halpenny 21:00

Fingers crossed.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 21:09

That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest Ghislaine Halpenny of the British Property Federation for sharing a great case study of the real world impacts of poor reputation and giving us a glimpse of how reputation can be improved at the sector level.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 21:26

I hope you'll join me in two weeks time when I'll be talking about why reputation matters to investors. In the meantime, if you've enjoyed this episode, please do find us at subscribe and leave us a review on your favourite podcasting app.

Daisy Powell-Chandler 21:45

Thank you for listening to Why Everybody Hates You. And remember, you are not alone.

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