A Thought Leaders Connected interview with three top Property Communications Heads

13 Jun 2019 by Cordelia Pollock.
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Victoria Buchanan, Head of PR EMEA, Savills

Molly Neal, Head of Corporate Communications, Landsec

Chris Wiggan, Head of Corporate Communications, Arcadis

Over the next few months I will be working on a series of articles, each focusing on one of our key industry sectors, bringing you valuable insight from senior communications professionals at some of the foremost companies in the sector. For this first piece, I have been talking to Heads of Communications and Media Relations at leading property advisors & agents, property consultants, and commercial property developers & investors. I have gained their views on the challenges they are currently facing at this time of political uncertainty, as well as what they are finding particularly interesting about property comms at present, what makes them tick and some expert advice for career progression.

Impact and evolution of digital communications

Although the digital revolution is now well and truly part of our daily lives, its impact still seems to be resonating and making change waves within the property industry. Chris Wiggan, Head of Corporate Communications at Arcadis, feels that property is, in many respects, still a very traditional sector that hasn’t been fully affected yet by the digital pace of change, but that they are now starting to see a lot of new innovators and innovations coming through. “The impact of digital on the case of change, trying to communicate that, and being seen as a leader in the field is making the property industry particularly interesting at the moment”, he comments. Chris also feels that Prop-tech and
the evolution of smart buildings is the next big area for innovation and creative thinking, continuing: “it is a very exciting industry, with lots going on from a property perspective. How you react to change and then communicate through compelling and impactful storytelling is key.”

“The property sector still has a strong trade press which covers the sector thoroughly and with integrity”, says Molly Neal, Head of Corporate Communications at Landsec. “But it’s important to take a completely integrated approach to campaigns – looking at digital, print, internal and external.”

Victoria Buchanan, Head of PR EMEA at Savills, comments that communications is always evolving and has done so rapidly over the past ten years due to digital and social media. “The balance between content produced in-house and content produced for external publications has definitely shifted”, she says. “We are seeing growing demand and engagement with our own podcasts, blogs and publications which brings together internal project specific production teams and provides more variety to the role of traditional PR, as well as development opportunities for the team.”

Predicting and communicating trends

What Molly Neal finds particularly interesting is looking at how people use buildings and what they want their buildings to deliver for them. “When I first started working in property as a journalist it was all about bricks and mortar and property as an asset class, whereas now it is all about people and the way they are interacting with the built environment”, she comments.

Chris Wiggan also feels this is important: “The people centric element, improving infrastructure, smart mobility solutions, creating homes and shops all has an impact on the economy and our everyday quality of life. We have to bring things back to the impact they have on the community and end user.”

Molly Neal continues: “there is also a lot of negative coverage on the retail sector and CVAs (Company Voluntary Agreements) at the moment, but I think from a communications point of view there is also great opportunity as physical space is still going to play a key part in the future of retail. It’s interesting to look at what those future trends are going to be, and then tell that story in a really compelling way.”

The challenge of predicting and communicating trends is one that Victoria Buchanan is aware of. “We need to constantly think forward, to produce sensible thought leadership that anticipates trends, but also interprets trends and how impactful they will be to the industry” she says.

The Brexit effect!

And, of course, there is that question about the impact of Brexit on the press arena. Molly Neal comments: “The number of column inches dedicated to Brexit is proving quite a challenge. It’s tough out there, economically and politically and there are lots of negative stories waiting to be written, so getting cut through within that environment can be
quite challenging. There are so many great stories still to tell, so the challenge is looking at how you pick up on what the journalists want to write about and tell your story through that. There are so many other important issues that need attention.”

Similarly, Chris Wiggan feels that everyone is currently in the same boat with Brexit, and, as an industry there is a need for certainty, but there is also a need to look beyond Brexit as well and the negatively dominated media landscape. “As communicators we need to talk up the property and built environment sector. The challenge is moving away from Brexit and focusing positively through thought leadership and communications on growth hotspots, new trends and opportunities, like modern methods of construction and modular innovation, where the UK is a leading light”, he says.

As Victoria Buchanan comments: “We are part of a global business; our team operates across EMEA and has a truly international reach. It is important we are in place to help communicate what is actually happening in the UK real estate market and opportunities that may occur during this current period of political uncertainty.”

And what about communications budgets and their companies core business? Chris Wiggan continues: “Brexit hasn’t affected us in terms of budget and hiring plans from a communications and corporate affairs perspective. Arcadis is a growing business in the UK with a strong pipeline of projects across all our key sectors – property, infrastructure and environmental services. Whatever Brexit scenario we finally agree on as a country, I am confident we have the contingency plans in place to manage all eventualities.

And despite the challenges, Molly Neal feels she has a good team in place at Landsec, so is ready for Brexit, whatever that will bring, observing: “there is always the challenge in communications of how you are going to deliver more for less. But the best ideas are rarely the most expensive ones. Managed the right way, a tighter budget can stimulate more creativity and innovation.”

What makes them tick?

And what do my experts find the most interesting aspect of their role? “Every day is different”, says Victoria Buchanan. “Savills is constantly evolving both by sector and geography and this is what makes it an exciting place to work. The drive to grow the company and improve our service is constant, the ambition is infectious and so there are
always multiple projects to get stuck into and new colleagues to learn from.”

For Chris Wiggan it’s very much the diversity of a business like Arcadis. “We deal from a communications perspective across so many different sectors that have an impact on property and built environment”, he explains. “One day you could be working on an inner-city regeneration scheme, other days dealing with projects on work-place strategy for a big multi-national. How we communicate around these topics is key.”

Molly Neal is particularly interested in the strategic side of communications, especially as comms and strategy are so interwoven. “Looking at what the future trends are, what’s going to last, and how we as a business should be responding to those is what really motivates me”, she says. “And what those trends mean for our customers from a property perspective and the way we communicate with them.”

Career advice

As we all know, advice on progressing a career is key and Victoria, Molly and Chris are very well placed to offer up some tips from the top on climbing the property communications ladder:

Victoria Buchanan:

“If you have a genuine interest in the subject matter you will go far. The property industry touches everyone through its involvement in placemaking, regenerating and developing cities and communities. Whilst the large-scale transactions are important, they are part of a bigger picture that makes a difference to our world, and identifying these trends is both important and relevant to explaining the industry.”

Molly Neal:

“Get out and see how people are interacting with the built environment, how people are using buildings and be curious about what that means and what story that might tell. Be bold with ideas and shape a story yourself rather than waiting for one to come to you, as there is huge opportunity but it’s not going to land on your plate.”

Chris Wiggan:

“Be inquisitive, keep learning and upskilling. It’s a very fluid market and there is likely to be some disruption coming our way. Despite the advent of digital and social comms, it is important not forgetting about traditional media. Being able to network, talk, engage with and build trust with key stakeholders is very important in comms. As is content and thought leadership; having a strong point of view on something is going to get the column inches or a foot over the door with whoever you want to engage with.”

Thank you very much Victoria, Molly and Chris for your insightful comments.

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