The Rules of Engagement

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Richard Bright

By Richard Bright, head of Weber Shandwick’s property division in Scotland 

THESE are exciting times for Scotland’s property industry.

Investment seems to be flooding in from a range of sources and confidence is, at last, returning to the marketplace.

Edinburgh is currently Europe’s most invested in city, with Glasgow not too far behind, and our local media seems full of grand plans – and subsequent planning controversies – which are shaping and changing the very heart and soul of our cities.

And this current magical mix of investment and confidence is having a huge impact on the way we are engaging with our audiences throughout the lifespan of any development project. In fact, it is changing the very nature of how we deliver property-based communications.

As the director of Weber Shandwick’s property division in Scotland, I have been lucky enough in the last 15 years to work with a wide range of some of the most complex and debated developments across Scotland, in the good times and the bad.

Weber Shandwick has developed a range of tried and tested methodologies to engage with our audiences, right from the start of the consultation process right through to construction and eventual marketing and selling to occupiers. And traditionally, the communication strategies supporting these phases have always been separated, even compartmentalised, to reflect their very different needs and objectives.

It has very much been a case of (1) sort the planning out (2) get the building built then (3) make it attractive to our commercial audiences. And these three phases would remain largely independent of each other.

However, what we are experiencing in Scotland’s cities right now is changing this approach, in quite an exciting and challenging way, which is having a major impact on how we at Weber Shandwick are managing the communication process.

The first reason for this is the ambition and vision of developers, buoyed by confidence and investment, is increasing, and they are taking on more and more challenging and complex regeneration projects right in the sensitive and aged heart of our city centres.

From the Old Town of Edinburgh to the Merchant City of Glasgow, gap sites which have previously stalled in less confident times are now being transformed.

The resulting eye-catching creativity and impact of the design-led solutions is fuelling a huge public debate about how our cities should take shape. And, through social media platforms, our public is more diverse and more equipped to engage in this debate than ever before, with their views faithfully reported and recorded for posterity across mainstream media channels.

And this very public debate that is being had at the very start of the planning process can now have a massive impact on a project’s long-term reputation – and that reputation will stick throughout the entire development process.

Get your messaging and conversations right, from the start of the process, and you have a great platform to build on. Get it wrong, and the permanency of social media will you will be forever haunted by controversy and negativity, which will be difficult to shift throughout a project’s lifespan.

Another related aspect to this is the need to establish a very defined sense of place, right from the early genesis of any development. As gap sites, especially those which have been unused for a long time,  are now coming to life and re-joining the rest of the city, so that city (and wider audiences) has an insatiable desire to genuinely understand what their future will look and feel like.  And developers now have an onus, and even a responsibility, to feed this desire.

Computer generated image techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated to allow us to paint this picture, creating a city centre virtual world which is invariably packed with al-fresco dining and unbroken sunshine.

But it is by employing temporary uses on site that we can literally bring the development to life and show the world what a fantastic location it can be.

Our cities are full of great examples of temporary uses – from creating grassed areas to temporary allotments, arts projects and pop-up hotels. What better way to sell a project – at any stage of its development – than by creating a long-lasting buzz and getting people to visit and talk about it.

All this means that the discussions and the feel good factor we are having at the start of the development, when we first launch to the public, are now directly influencing its perception in the market place and ultimately its commercial success.

We can’t compartmentalise our audiences and our strategies any more, and doing things ‘under the radar’ simply doesn’t work.

Constructive and creative engagement with our civic and community audiences at the start has a direct and indelible link to commercial profile and success. These are now our rules of engagement.