National Construction Week is back. This time the industry plans to use hands-on events and freebies to convince the media and public that there’s more to building than wet concrete.
A crowd of 250 schoolchildren, teachers, parents and local newspaper reporters gathered eagerly around the flagpole outside contractor Thomas Vale’s Stourport headquarters one day in October 1997. They were awaiting the unveiling of a 12 m tower, hidden under tarpaulin. Removing the cover revealed a structure made of 2.6 × 1.3 m sheets of plywood, and painted with images of everything from JCBs to the Spice Girls in hard hats.

The tower was the result of a project the contractor had set local pupils as part of National Construction Week. And it was one of the most successful events in the industry’s first nationally co-ordinated awareness-raising week. The aims were to convince the public there is more to construction than builders’ bums, and to get schoolchildren interested in construction as a career. Firms were encouraged to open their doors and get the public in to learn about the industry, and many did. So, why was Thomas Vale’s event one of the few that caught the local media’s attention during the first National Construction Week?

Publicity is paramount

Construction Industry Board operations manager Derek Rees, one of this year’s organisers, explains: “A lot of firms put time and effort into organising events but failed to tell anyone about them. We did a survey of firms who organised events last time and found only 30% or 40% of them had sent out a press release.” Despite this, the week generated more than 550 press cuttings, most of them in local papers. Only one or two, such as a Legoland competition, caught the nationals’ attention – which was one of the reasons the week went with more of a whimper than a bang.

The right strategy

Most people don’t make a will. Get the statistics to prove it and that’s a news story. Quirky case studies also make for good editorial coverage

Louis High, press officer, Law Society, who helped to organise Make as Will Week

Now National Construction Week is back. Kicking off on 19 April, its organisers hope that this year more firms will participate and help get the industry some positive media coverage for once.

The CIB has taken a leaf out of other industries’ PR books and come up with specific themes for firms to base their events on. The five themes, one for each day of the week, will also provide a framework for nationally organised events that, they hope, will attract the national media.

Monday’s theme of “improving performance”, for example, sees construction minister Nick Raynsford publicising a report showing that clients believe the industry has already made strides in improving its performance. The theory is that themes for the other days – the environment, people, innovation and community – will also trigger ideas for events and provide a peg for news stories.

Adrian Wheeler, chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association, approves of the industry’s strategy for the week. “We recommend getting strong political endorsement at the highest possible level – that’s always good for getting headlines,” he says.

Choose a particular policy issue if you want press coverage. You need a theme which brings the company or organisation together. We also mail politicians with a summary of the issues and ask them to campaign on our behalf

Rachel Taylor, Children’s Day co-ordinator for the NSPCC

However, he maintains that contact with the public is still important. “There should be as many opportunities for direct interaction between the industry and the public as possible. The importance of the impression left in a child’s mind of an exciting visit to a building site shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Planning an interesting site visit, however, is something of an art form – talk too long about the building before your audience sees it and they may nod off; blind them with technical jargon and you will have the same result. Also, remember that routes around sites should avoid potential hazards and that groups should be kept small so everyone can hear the guide.

Above all, explain things in a way your audience will understand. Try making comparisons with other industries or coming up with amazing statistics. For added interest, you could include a quiz or even some hands-on bricklaying or flower-planting. And the local press, councillors or MPs may be happy to attend if invited – especially if there is a photo opportunity.

A change of emphasis

Do research to find out exactly what the public perception of your industry is – it can range from a complete lack of awareness to horrible misconceptions

Adrian Wheeler, chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association

Although site visits remain a popular feature of the week, this year there are also some new aspects, such as greater emphasis on the Internet. Details of events are posted on the National Construction Week web site (, and, so far, 120 companies have registered. The CIB is encouraging firms organising events to put details on the web site and to set up links to their own sites.

The organisers have produced a booklet on how to put together an event, with ideas to jazz up site visits, including planting time capsules, lighting up buildings, mini construction Olympics and Mr or Ms Building Universe shows. Branded merchandise also features more strongly than last time — as well as National Construction Week bunting, there are now T-shirts, baseball caps, mouse mats, balloons, keyrings, bags and banners. Organisers of other industry “weeks” find branded merchandise important in grabbing the public’s attention. Louis High, press officer for the Law Society, which organised Make a Will Week last month, says: “We send solicitors posters and stickers to advertise the week. They’re very popular. It helps promote the theme as well as drawing attention to their business.”

If there is one thing all those organising an event this year need, it’s energy. As Tony Hyde of Thomas Vale explains, it can be exhausting organising even a small-scale event. “After we came up with the idea, it took a good two to three months planning, and just about everyone had some part in organising it,” he says of the open day, which also included a barbecue, quiz and construction poem competition, as well as the unveiling of the picture tower.

“This year, because we’re so busy, we’re talking to fewer schools and trying to keep it simpler.”