In conversation with Emma Harris, Business Development Director // MPC
Emma Harris is the Business Development Director at MPC, a PR consultancy using the built environment as a catalyst for positive change, addressing inequalities in society. The team at MPC are experts in relationship building, with a mission to create tailored campaigns that articulate the benefits of new development. From site acquisition through to build, they engage with local communities, politicians and the media to motivate support for their clients’ plans.
In this interview, Emma gives advice to developers looking to improve their online presence going into 2022, in an ever-increasing climate that is dependent on searchability, trust and visibility. She also provides insight into negotiating the planning process and winning over local stakeholders.
There are many different stakeholders all with different opinions that need to be managed within the planning system. How can developers best negotiate this to achieve planning consent?
"Property planning is inherently political and decisions are not made purely on technical grounds. If you're only engaging with people who are making decisions based on technical grounds, then you're only speaking to half of the people who are integral in making the decisions. As a PR agency, we find people within the local community who are supportive and empower them to make that reasoned argument on behalf of the developer in support of plans. It can really make a difference when someone speaks in favour of development.
"As long as you can motivate someone to come out and support, it has a lot of weight and will generally help de-risk that planning process."
– Emma Harris // MPC
"For example, there was an application for a new Tesco in Bristol, and the room was absolutely full of people who didn’t want it to open. However, one person had the courage to stand up and speak in favour of it. They outlined that it would really help them to have a local Tesco because it would mean they would have access to cheap baby food and supplies. The committee was receptive to this case and found it a powerful endorsement.
"Although that person certainly didn't outweigh the number of opponents in the room, it was enough to sway the committee, who are long enough in the tooth to know that those who shout loudest are likely to be the opposition. As long as you can motivate someone to come out and support, it has a lot of weight and will generally help de-risk that planning process."
How receptive are SME developers to the use of PR in their site adoption and planning processes?
"Larger PLC developers are very aware of it, smaller developers don’t always realise the benefits of PR in the process. Interestingly, however, SME developers are often the ones with the nicest story to tell. I also think people love an underdog and we all love a David versus Goliath story. What we’re doing is telling the story of all the good things that these developers want to do to improve their communities.
"They have a real commitment to the local community as they often only operate within that local area and usually fund the area, so have a vested interest in building a legacy. I think that if you've got that story to tell, it's really important to tell it."
How do you think smaller developers should start embracing public relations in their business operations?
"In this industry, developers are comfortable with doing marketing and PR around the sale of their houses, but what often goes unnoticed is the latent body of people who might want to buy your house in the future. Developers should tap into these segments and turn them into potential buyers earlier in the process, by encouraging them to support through the planning process. That’s where a PR process can help – we quite often say that we treat a PR campaign in the planning world like you would treat a political campaign.
"SME developers are often the ones with the nicest story to tell."
– Emma Harris // MPC
"For example, if I were a Labour candidate, I wouldn’t go into the Tory Heartlands and attempt to persuade them to vote Labour, as that's not the most effective strategy. Instead, you try and tackle the floating voters or the apathetic silent majority; they're often out there, but they're not necessarily going to come forward and speak to you. However, as a developer, you need to go out and find those people, because they are more likely to be supportive, and then ultimately buy your house."
What’s one piece of advice for an SME developer starting this journey of campaigning for support in the local community? Why should developers consider working with an agency?
"There's quite a prescriptive way in which developers think that they need to go speak to the local community, which more often than not involves speaking to those who object to a scheme. However, it’s likely that your objectors are going to be making lots of noise and the default position is to go and spend time, energy and money trying to change their minds.
"But you should spend as little time as possible on the people you know will object. How will you instead speak to those who are likely to be most supportive and endorse your scheme? And what are the best ways to reach them? It’s unlikely to be a traditional route because typically those who are most supportive of house building are likely to be the younger generation who are not on the property ladder yet. Therefore the route to them requires targeted planning as this generation communicates in a different way and uses a different language.
"If a developer can generate some organic support for their plans, which is more likely to lead to local consent, they will save extra time that they would otherwise expend attempting to revise the plans and take it back to another committee. Therefore, my one piece of advice would be to throw out preconceptions about how to go and speak to the local community. Engaging with supporters with the help of an agency like MPC can help de-risk the process by minimising the risk to a developer’s cash flow."
How do you think social media particularly can benefit property developers?
"As a developer, it’s important to have some sort of online presence. We live in an age where you should be able to google a company, and if they don’t have a website, alarm bells ring. Although it doesn’t have to be particularly comprehensive, developers certainly need to be in the online space.
"There are multiple uses for social media that can be beneficial, particularly paid-for social media advertising, also known as pay per click. Pay per click is about tapping into that silent majority and social media is a really powerful way to find those people. There are all sorts of clever things you can do to reach them.
"As a developer, it’s important to have some sort of online presence. We live in an age where you should be able to google a company, and if they don’t have a website, alarm bells ring."
– Emma Harris // MPC
"For example, on Facebook Ads Manager, you can plug in all of the information in the back end about your target demographic when launching an advert or message. If I was the desired customer in that demographic, I could be scrolling on my phone and then an advert might pop up that has been specifically designed for me, which asks ‘are you looking to buy a new home in your local area?’ That user might be keen to buy and so click on the advert in response. In clicking on that advert, it captures that user’s information and sends those details to a member of your team, who would then contact that user with relevant messaging to help you along with a sale."
How useful is social media for developers looking to achieve support for their development plans?
"By using pay per click advertising, teams can reach out to their target group to find those profiles likely to be advocates and speak up for new developments. Nine times out of ten, a member of the community will say they would like to support the developer’s plans, but they are unsure of how to get involved.
"It’s at the next step where a PR agency can develop an education piece and talk supporters through how to advocate, what they might like to say to support the plans and in which forums. These are all tips and tricks that objectors use to get planning applications rejected, so it's all perfectly common practice in the objector space, but less so in the supporter space.
"It's that ‘TripAdvisor mentality’ where everyone really understands that if you object you have the right to shout about it and have your voice heard. But if you support something, you are much less likely to say anything, because you're generally apathetic, so an agency like MPC would look to turn that apathy into something useful. Therefore, paid-for social media advertising is a really easy way to reach your target profile and campaign cost-effectively."
How do you think attitudes towards PR and social media within the built environment has changed over the last few years?
"People are starting to realise that it’s almost an essential, rather than a tick box exercise and that a company like ours is an essential part of the project team. The pandemic has actually catapulted the industry into the 21st century. I think a lot of the PLCs and more traditional developers had a premeditated idea about how to go about consultation and engagement around planning matters.
"The pandemic has taken away the crutch of the face-to-face event and public meetings, which is where you're traditionally only engaging with a self-selecting few, who are more likely to be in the opposition. I think by moving into the digital space, we are now communicating with a much wider audience who are much more likely to be supportive of what our clients are trying to do."
This interview was originally published in our recent UK market report which you can read here.
Did you know that you can also include PR and marketing costs into your Aprao development appraisal for more accurate costings? Click here to learn more!