Communications and trust - reflections on CommsFest 2023

CommsFest 2023. What a month that was! 80 delegates, eight sessions, and more than a dozen speakers covering all aspects of communications and housing.

As ever, the conference was a much-needed opportunity to step away from the day job. To learn from the past and look to the future.

Going through 10,000+ words of notes, there were some key themes coming through. Both from our practical sessions on, for instance, crisis management and in our more reflective networking spaces.

Words like transparency, honesty, empathy, clarity and openness appear time and again.

This is reassuring for a sector preparing for Access to Information, under increased media scrutiny and gearing up for regulation linked to perception via the Tenant Satisfaction Measures.

But it is trust – and the need to rebuild trust with tenants in the social housing sector – that provided the golden thread for the conference.

We’ve talked about trust a lot over the past 18 months with clients…. but what is it? How did we lose it? And how do we get it back?

The Trust Triangle from Frances Frei and Anne Morriss is as good a place as any to start on the subject.

The Trust Triangle argues that when trust is lost, it can usually be traced back to a breakdown in one of three drivers: authenticity (I’m experiencing the real you), logic (I believe you can deliver, and your judgement is sound) and empathy (I believe you care about me).

Delve into some of the recent media coverage on the sector and these drivers might feel very familiar.

There is a multitude of internal and external factors that impact each of those areas – but the need for high quality communications sits comfortably across all three.

Yet, often, the role of comms teams is so narrowly defined that our communications professionals have limited ability to have anything other than a peripheral impact on each of these drivers.

For leaders across housing who are passionate about rebuilding trusting relationship with tenants, lifting communications onto a far more strategic footing – and the training and upskilling that comes with that – is a sound starting point.

Throughout the conference, we heard from some incredible peers about when effective communications works well. When an open, healthy culture shines through.

We also reflected on how harmful, and ultimately fatal, it can be when the story we tell about our organisations does not match up with the experiences of tenants, peers, politicians and other partners.

We can put together the most powerful and engaging stories in the world (and we often do), but if they don’t represent people’s real experiences, then at some point down the line this will have consequences.

Communications teams are responsible for the story we tell the outside world, but they are also the guardians of our culture and the champions of the behaviours and language that bring that culture to life every day.

As we were reminded in a fascinating internal comms session, culture and communications go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.

There is much to reflect on. And that’s why it’s important for us to remember that we are part of a wider community. The roles of communications teams are changing…. and change is difficult. So we must keep learning from each other.

CommsFest is always a good reminder of that.

So, let’s keep connected. And let’s continue to work towards new and more trusting relationship, built on authenticity, empathy and our ability to deliver.

Hough Bellis has set up a WhatsApp group where comms professionals can connect, ask questions and share experiences. To join email bobbie@houghbellis.co.uk

Bobbie Hough
managing director, Hough Bellis Communications