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.