If your flagship project goes horribly wrong and the press are baying for blood, don't just stop answering the phone. You need a PR who can spin your company from disaster to triumph.
When your flagship project starts wobbling, who do you call first: the engineer or the PR department? The engineer might be able to fix the wobble, but your PR can help mend something far more important: your reputation.

Arup learned this last summer when the Millennium Bridge began its infamous sway.

The resulting frenzy of negative media attention threatened to overwhelm the firm. With no structural solution to hand, Arup had to get its PR act together – and fast. "It was a really intense time because we've never had a project that has received such negative coverage," says Harriett Ryan, Arup's media relations officer.

"That was hard to deal with initially." The firm decided to adopt an extremely simple PR strategy. "From day one we decided to be open and honest," says Ryan. "We hid nothing." Arup's policy was helped early on by the bridge's co-designer Lord Foster, who publicly distanced himself from the problem and blamed the engineer. Though accurate, Foster's stance was portrayed as buck-passing in the media, while Arup's candid admissions of embarrassment were better received.

Compared with advertising, PR is the most cost-effective way of getting your message across

Lynn Levy, freelance PR

As a result, what could have been a PR disaster ended up presenting Arup in a fairly positive light – as a cutting-edge engineer determined to correct an unexpected mistake. "I don't think it has damaged our brand," says Ryan. "I think we came out of it pretty well." Arup's experience contrasts with the high-profile PR disaster of Portcullis House, the Michael Hopkins-designed parliament extension that was savaged by the press for its extravagance. Giles Barrie, the former Building journalist who broke the story about the huge overspend, says the architect's refusal to face the press contributed to the negative coverage. "Hopkins wouldn't talk about it. If he had been a bit more friendly, it might have helped people understand the concept of the building. But he was dismissive." Barrie agrees that honesty is the best approach: "The best thing is to be very open and explain it. No amount of spin can disguise an outrageous overspend." Deborah Stratton of PR firm Stratton & Reekie says smart PR can prevent a story turning bad. Last autumn, Stratton was inundated with calls from journalists after Peckham Library – designed by her client Alsop Architects – was shut down for a week to allow light bulbs to be changed in the building's high ceiling. The building had just won the prestigious Stirling prize and the press was hoping to run stories about architectural incompetence, but Stratton says she successfully persuaded most journalists that the situation was nothing to do with the design of the building.

Refusing to speak to the press is a disastrous strategy, says Stratton. "Don't avoid the press and never say 'no comment'. If you do, it looks as if you've got something to hide." Stratton suggests some ground rules for dealing with unexpected media enquiries. "Don't overreact, don't get defensive. Check out all the facts first. Speak to other parties involved to find out what they're going to say in public. Then agree on a line – and stick to it." But PR isn't just about reacting to crises. These days, a day-to-day PR strategy is a vital part of any business plan. Even so, PR is only just beginning to be fully exploited in the construction industry.

"The construction sector is relatively immature in its understanding of communication," says Tony Danaher, a senior partner at PR firm Tamesis. Danaher believes that the industry's poor image is partly down to poor PR. "Construction firms struggle to get noticed by the press. People think the sector is badly managed, technologically backwards, low margin and litigious. This is not uniformly true, but it shows how people's perceptions are important." Danaher says PR isn't about faxing sheaves of press releases every week; instead, it should be an integral part of business strategy. "PR has real value when it gets under the skin of management and helps to drive it. It'll add something to the way you're run." Ann Mealor, assistant director of the Institute of Public Relations, defines PR as "reputation management. It's about what you do, what you say and what others say about you." Lynn Levy, a freelance PR in the construction and property sectors, says PR is cheaper than most firms realise. "Compared with marketing and advertising," she says, "PR is the most cost-effective way of getting your message across." Handled properly, PR has numerous benefits for a firm. Having a strong media profile can improve staff morale, make recruitment easier, impress existing customers and attract new clients.

Don’t avoid the press and never say ‘no comment’ because it looks as if you’ve got something to hide

Deborah Stratton, Stratton & Reekie

But get it wrong and you can end up damaging your reputation instead of enhancing it. Journalists are easily irritated by time-wasting PR officers and irrelevant press releases. One of the most common mistakes is not targeting your message properly. Firms need to understand what types of stories each publication is likely to be interested in.

A smart PR will tailor a story to appeal to the target publication. Back in the early days of the PFI, Bovis Lend Lease corporate communications manager Andrew Bond managed to get favourable coverage for Bovis (as it was then) when it pulled out of bidding for road projects after failing to win the first two contracts. Bond phoned journalists he knew to be suspicious of PFI and briefed them on Bovis' reasons for withdrawing, and they responded with a series of pieces praising the firm for its wisdom. "It appeared to be a very negative story, but we were championed as being wise and sensible people," says Bond.

Book an appointment with a spin doctor

Many construction industry firms have their own small, in-house PR teams, often doubling up on other tasks such as marketing. But increasingly firms are turning to external agencies. PR agencies usually work on monthly retainers, generally charging about £2000-4000 a month. The less sophisticated ones will simply send out a set quota of press releases each month and try to fix up coverage in the trade press. The better ones will tailor their services to your corporate strategy and offer strategic advice to executives. Agencies have several advantages. They tend to have high-level media contacts and are able to make an objective assessment of stories, finding the good ones and “spinning” them so they appeal to journalists. Agencies also have direct contact with a firm’s management and can therefore exert more influence than an in-house PR, who is often fairly low down the corporate ladder. A good agency will not be afraid to speak home truths, something in-houses might be reluctant to do. The main drawback of agencies is their cost – only large firms can afford them. Smaller firms can instead appoint freelance PRs who will work on a daily rate (typically £250). But freelancers with specialist knowledge of the industry are few and far between. Some firms use a mixture of in-house and agencies. Bovis Lend Lease supplements its in-house team with specialist agencies in the regions that have strong ties with local media. It also employs agencies abroad, where small offices do not justify dedicated in-house PRs. Finding a PR is best done by word of mouth. The Institute of Public Relations offers a service to match firms to appropriate agencies, costing £65. Call 020-7253 5151 or visit www.ipr.org.uk for more information.

That’s the way to do it … and how not to do it

The London Eye threatened to become the biggest PR disaster of the Millennium when cables snapped as the structure was lifted into place. However, the honesty of the architects, husband and wife team David Marks and Julia Barfield, significantly helped defuse the situation. The couple spoke openly about the problems they were encountering, turning the situation into a gripping real-life soap opera. By the time of the inevitable happy ending, the wheel was one of the best-loved monuments in London and Marks and Barfield were media stars.

The Millennium Dome is an object lesson in how not to handle PR. Even before construction started, the dome’s press office alienated journalists by being aggressive and defensive, often vigorously denying what later turned out to be true. The debacle of the opening ceremony, when Fleet Street’s elite were left stranded in the freezing cold at Stratford Station, was the last straw for the media, which delighted in kicking the project during the whole year it was open.

Walsall Bus Station overcame bad publicity with the help of PR firm Tamesis. Architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ structurally innovative building hit the headlines in the local media for the wrong reasons in 1999 when the spectacular concrete roof began to sag. Tamesis helped the construction team weather the storm by co-ordinating the release of information to the media. After the problems were solved during the summer they teed up a series of positive articles, focusing on the innovative and regenerative aspects of the project, in a range of publications from the trade press to national Sunday newspapers.