Over the past couple of weeks, housing was once again top of the government’s agenda.
And with housing associations expected to build more than 60,000 new homes this year, as well as making a long-term investment in people, local communities and economies, our sector’s voice is growing louder.
At Sovereign, one of the driving reasons behind our merger just over a year ago was to build our influence, so we could do more for our residents and the places where we work.
When the merger completed, we became the sixth largest housing association in the country and a major business – with a £370m turnover we’d be part of the FTSE 250 if we were a listed, for-profit company.
The challenge for us in the communications team is to harness that organisational strength, and turn it into outcomes that help us have even more of an impact locally.
A strong place to start
The first step was to understand what our important partners and stakeholders thought of us. So we undertook a stakeholder perception audit last year.
We found we were well respected, people thought we delivered what we said we would – and we did a great job. In particular, our leaders and people were incredibly highly-rated.
What this meant was we could be more confident that when we spoke, people would listen. It also meant we could be braver, we had some good will in the bank.
As well as giving our Executive Board confidence, it’s helped shape our new strategy for the future, with influence and partnerships seen as integral to delivering what looks set to be an ambitious strategy.
The themes are still emerging, but we know we want to make a real difference to people and our communities, we know we want to build many more homes – that are both affordable and meet a broader range of needs.
This clarity of direction will help us shape our influencing objectives and messages too.
An army of influencers
As part of the audit, we also asked our own senior leaders about influencing – what did it mean to them and their role?
They all agreed influencing was part of their role and everyone’s responsibility. They were up for the challenge of doing more too, locally and nationally.
The question now is how can we leverage all of our 1,800 brilliant, passionate people at Sovereign? How can we help them tell their stories and make the most of all their connections?
We obviously had some fantastic relationships, we knew we could grow the digital profile of our employees to support their powerful, face-to-face conversions.
We started with a ‘reverse mentoring’ programme, where younger people from across the business spent time with our leaders to show them how social media works and to dispel any myths or fears.
And last year we introduced Workplace, an internal social network, to give people a safe place to have a go.
It’s been a great success, it’s been a place to practice and build confidence and skill for everyone in the business.
Workplace has also become a rich source of stories to support our broader reputation and influencing work, giving us some fantastic content for our corporate social media or to support consultation responses or face-to-face meetings.
We have more people on Twitter now, telling their stories, and we’ve seen engagement increase too. We’re really investing in LinkedIn, which is proving to be a great place to create connections with content leading to opportunities to create new relationships or deepen old ones.
In fact, we have LinkedIn to thank for our CEO, Ann Santry, appearing on the BBC 6 o’clock news on Budget Day, billed as the ‘housing Budget’. She’d met Mark Easton from the BBC at a conference, got on well and then connected on LinkedIn.
When he was looking for a confident, thoughtful expert – he gave us a call.
It’s about people, not policies
While our strategy will provide the framework, we want to target our influencing objectives on tangible outcomes for our residents or communities, not just specific policy changes.
We’re here to fight for better places, whether that’s funding for affordable homes, welfare reform changes and so on.
We also can’t forget our strong local relationships while we seek to influence central government. In fact, these local connections, where we demonstrate the difference we make every day are the way to achieve broader change.
That’s why we’re creating a series of simple, adaptable national and local plans to support our influencing and partnership work.
Making a difference is a team effort, right across the business, from the front line to the board room. My team are here to help focus that passion, shape and amplify their stories, and give people the tools to really punch our weight, and influence with an impact our communities can feel.