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10 April 2024

31 min

S10 - E5: Stop being anti-social: Start a conversation on social media – James Calnan

James Calnan is Communications Manager at Eastlight Community Homes, a resident-led housing association based in the East of England.

After 12 years working as a local journalist and news editor, James entered the world of social housing in 2017 and has turned his hand on everything from media relations and change campaigns to mergers and rebrands. He currently focuses on comms with Eastlight’s residents and communities.

James’ communications campaign for All In, the UK’s first community incubator, picked up Silver at the region’s Pride awards in 2023 and Highly Commended in the Campaign of the Year category at the 2023 UK Housing Awards.

James is a CIPR member and will (hopefully) soon complete a CIPR diploma.

Podcast overview

It is a truth universally acknowledged that organisations are only ever one social media post away from a crisis. But social media is also an opportunity – to turn those crisis situations around, to learn what your customers think about you and to build relationships with the stakeholders that matter most.

In this podcast, James talks about how the social housing world, which is on the cusp of a new era of consumer regulation, is communicating with the residents the sector exists to serve. He then shares his top tips for organisations looking to turn those Facebook frowns upside down.

Podcast questions

  •  Set the scene – what’s happening in social housing at the moment that communications teams are focusing on?
  • Why do you think housing associations and organisations should use Facebook?
  •  What are the challenges comms people face when pushing for channels that involve more engagement with the outside world and how can you overcome them?
  • What are the top tips for comms people looking to up their game on social media?

0:00:08 – Asif Choudry
Hello and welcome to a new episode of the your my commsHERO podcast, and I’m your host, Asif Choudry. Today, my guest is James Calnan. James is a communications manager at East Light Community Homes, a resident led housing association based in the East of England. James’s communications campaign for all in the UK’s first community incubator picked up silver at the region’s Pride Awards in 2023 and highly commended in the campaign of the year category at the 2023 UK Housing Awards. James is a CIPR member and will hopefully soon complete a CIPR diploma. So good luck with that, James, and thanks for joining me on the podcast.

0:00:47 – James Calnan
Thanks for having me, asif. I really appreciate the opportunity.

0:00:52 – Asif Choudry
You’re welcome and, as we like to do in time, on a tradition and a chance for myself and the listeners to get to know you, james. So let’s kick off with what’s your most played song on your Spotify.

0:01:05 – James Calnan
So we’ve got a family account so I had to look at our unwrapped and the artist top artist is Taylor Swift. I think if you think about what I do, you think about what I listen to the most. You probably as Taylor Swift what I choose to listen to the most. It wouldn’t necessarily be Taylor Swift, so I had a little scroll down. I think it’s New Order Regret. So I’ve listened to a lot of New Order recently. I think that’s the one I’ve probably chosen to listen to the most.

0:01:33 – Asif Choudry
Excellent. I love that question because it’s such an eclectic mix from all the different guests. Okay, so which famous person would you invite to dinner, and why?

0:01:42 – James Calnan
So the prospect of sitting down with a famous person for dinner is kind of anxiety inducing for me. I’ve interviewed, you know, prime Ministers and all that kind of stuff in the past, but the idea of actually having to hold a conversation and keep them entertained for a while is quite nerve-racking. But I think I’ve always been interested in what makes Martin Lewis tick. So he’s a force of nature For consumers. He just seems to be everywhere. So I’m sure I’d enjoy the conversation with him. So I’ll go for Martin.

0:02:31 – Asif Choudry
Great shout and I think you won’t be alone. And many people will have that anxiety inducing if they met somebody in such a setting and had that amount of time. And just to wrap up, then, james, I’m getting to know you a bit, so three words to describe you.

0:02:48 – James Calnan
Yeah. So I asked my family about this and I’ve got more than three words, but three of the ones that I’m willing to share are driven, conscientious and thoughtful.

0:03:01 – Asif Choudry
Love that. Excellent, and you’ll have the listeners thinking I wonder what, especially those that know you. What were the other ones?

0:03:10 – James Calnan
Feel free to ask.

0:03:14 – Asif Choudry
That’s a brave thing, asking the family, but you’ll get an honest view, yeah, won’t? Your family and friends definitely Definitely go on, okay, so the podcast itself then. So the title of this is Stop being Antisocial and Start a Conversation on Social Media, and it’s a truth universally acknowledged that organizations are only ever one social media post away from a crisis, but social media is also an opportunity to turn those crisis situations around, to learn what your customers think about you and build relationships with the stakeholders that matter most.

And in this podcast, james is going to talk about how the social housing world, which is on the cusp of a new era of consumer regulation, is communicating with the residents and the sector exists to serve, and he’s going to share some of his top tips for organizations looking to turn those Facebook frowns upside down. So it’s going to be a really interesting episode and one that I’m sure people in many different sectors will resonate with as well. So before we get into that, though, james, I’ve got the I’m going to kick off with the first question with that. You know it’s important to understand, you know kind of who you are really and what you do in the world of comms.

0:04:28 – James Calnan
Yeah, thanks as if. So, I’m. Yeah, I’m James. I’ve worked in social housing for nearly seven years now, so as a communication manager and housing association it’s it’s a generalist type of role, so I’ve covered all sorts. So social media, internal engagement, being through merger, change communications, brand creation, crisis, comms, I mean I think, if you name it, I probably turned my hand to it, yeah, with bearing degrees of success, but at the moment I’m really focusing on comms with our residents and local communities and for joining the housing world. I spent 12 years as a journalist and a newsletter for local regional newspapers, so I started off in in the west midlands, in Wolverhampton, but I spent most of my time working on papers here in my wonderful home county, which is Essex, before I did what many people in the sector do and essentially fell into social housing by getting a job at Greenfield Community Housing Association and they merged with another local housing organization back in 2020 to form form Eastlite.

0:05:49 – Asif Choudry
Okay, great. So that tells us kind of how you’ve got to where you are now. So we mentioned in the intro there about, you know, social housing and that sector being on the cusp of some big changes. So what’s happening in social housing at the moment that communications teams are focusing on?

0:06:08 – James Calnan
Yeah, so very briefly, I don’t know much about the sector housing associations. Most of us are non-profit organisations, so we’re rather existing to make money. We exist for a purpose and they vary from provider to provider, but it’s essentially to provide homes and services to residents who can otherwise afford to rent or buy on the open market. The sector’s facing a really big challenge at the moment and at the root of that, I think, is basically that an increasing number of residents living in the homes that we own is just simply not satisfied with the homes and services we’re providing and that kind of reputation obviously I don’t think it’s you know it’s that specific to housing associations and you know I focus on housing because I work there. But you will see trust in institutions falling across the board if you look at the aid of research. So the challenges that we’re taking on I don’t think are a million miles away from those faced by colleagues working for the NHS, for example. At the moment, for police forces, water companies, sort of purpose-driven organisations across the board are facing challenges not dissimilar to the ones we are. But going back to housing, there’s a long list of causes of this rising dissatisfaction. You’ve got the cost of living, you’ve got stigma, you’ve got all sorts, but essentially we are living in what’s widely accepted to be a housing crisis, the availability of social housing. So these are homes provided at below market rent by housing associations, also by local authorities. That’s dropped substantially. So we had five and a half million homes in 1980 and there’s now just a little over four million homes today. So that’s nearly one and a half million fewer social homes out there. And the consequence of that is that the weight in this social housing now stands at 1.2 million households. And behind that sort of stark statistics there’s a record number of people in our communities living on the streets, living in temporary accommodation. They’re safer, surfing, they’re living in overcrowded or unsuitable homes. And that kind of fall in social housing numbers is largely down to right to buy, which is a scheme introduced in the 1980s where tenants get a large discount to buy their home. And that in itself is no bad thing. It’s an amazing opportunity to get the security of your own home. But the issue is there hasn’t been sufficient funding to build social homes to replace them. So housing associations have counted that in the past by borrowing to fund and build their own.

In the process of building these new homes. They’ve been accused and very frequently with some justification of neglecting their insisting homes and the residents who live there, of underinvesting in them and to bring that back to sort of the challenges comms teams face, that’s kind of manifested itself in the publication of a number of investigations by journalists, especially ITV. We’ve had been shamed by social media campaigners, even by the housing ombudsman and even the housing secretary, michael Gove, and these investigations feature residents left in extremely unacceptably poor housing conditions by the housing provider, and the most horrifying of those was the inquest into our bishak, who’s a little boy who died after prolonged exposure to mould in his home in Rochdale. And so fast forward to we’re recording this in March 2024, I think it’s coming out in April and the government at the moment is weeks away from introducing the biggest overhaul in social housing regulation in some time, and this has been in the pipeline since the Grenfell Tower tragedy back in 2017. And it gives the regulator of social housing a raft of new powers.

So we’re getting new looking inspections, we’re getting potentially unlimited fines and we’re getting new and tougher consumer standards that we must meet or face the consequences. And the broad goal of all of these messages really is just to ensure residents have a voice and that they listen to and they get their homes and services they want and need, and that’s because at the root of it is that too many residents have lost faith in their landlords. So here at East Light, we haven’t been subject to anything like the level of media scrutiny that others have. But we’re certainly not perfect and we’re certainly not complacent, and while this challenge at the sector faces isn’t something that can certainly can’t be solved by comms alone far from it I do believe communications teams have a role to play in rebuilding that trust.

0:11:08 – Asif Choudry
Yes, it is a really interesting time. As you mentioned there and that would you know, that kind of change that’s happening in the sector is huge and there’s hundreds of housing providers going through that. But, like you say, there’s similar situations faced by the NHS and health services, the blue light services and what have you as well. So you we’ve mentioned in the intro that this is focused, obviously, on communicating all of that. So you know, there’s there’s lots of media channels out there to be able to communicate these changes and how the organizations are delivering these changes, and be focused primarily on Facebook, then. So why? Why do you think housing associations and organizations should be using Facebook?

0:11:55 – James Calnan
Yeah, so it’s a bit of a leap, I guess, from rebuilding trust using Facebook, and of course, it isn’t the only answer. You can find the links in the middle of the link in the description box. I focus on communication with residents because they’re the key stakeholders here, for reasons I’ll come on to a bit later, and we use a range of methods to communicate with residents. So we have customer service, we’ve got a website, we text, we email, we write and I still believe in the importance of print. We take our resident magazine very seriously here at Eastlite.

To cut a long story short, and I think comms people instinctively believe and understand this, but there is a demonstrable, strong link between trust and good communication, and social media helps in a number of ways, and that starts with listening. So resident feedback helps us understand their likes and dislikes and we can feed that back accordingly to ensure our services meet their needs. There’s the opportunity to turn negative experiences into positive ones by responding to complaints, and you can only do that if you’re present on social media. And then, finally, you can broadcast information that’s of interest to your residents and answer their questions, and that’s key to being transparent, which is a big drive in the sector at the moment, and the reason I focus on Facebook is just simply that we can reach and engage with more of our residents on it.

Well, I particularly love Facebook. If you can reach your audiences on different channels, then use those different channels, but I think there’s probably a couple of myths that are worth busting around the channel. I think there’s a fairly common belief that Facebook is on the decline, and maybe in many metrics it is, but broadly I think that’s wishful thinking by people who just don’t particularly like it very much. They’ve seen the scandals that the platform was faced or they prefer these more upstart rivals, your TikToks, and think they’re taking the audience share. But the reality is that more people use Facebook and they generally use it more than their rivals. So if you look at the off-com data, that’s nearly 44 million people who are on Facebook and Instagram. That’s more than 90% of adults. That’s far more than Instagram. That’s nearly 20 million more than ex or Twitter. They also spend longer on there, so they spend pretty much half an hour a day on average scrolling and messaging on there.

And then there’s the other sort of thing that you always hear is that young people don’t use Facebook anymore. But I guess to me that depends on your definition of young. So it is true to say you’re looking. Going back to your off-com data, it’s 18 to 24 year olds. They’re more likely to be on Instagram and they also spend a frankly, terrifying amount of time on TikTok and Snapchat. But for every other age group for adults that is Facebook comes out top for a number of users and time spent using it, and at Eastlight, we use for social media channels, but more than 90% of our comments and queries come from residents, come via Facebook. So that’s why we focus on Facebook for resident communications channels, obviously alongside other media, but it’s just because we know we can reach our residents there.

0:15:17 – Asif Choudry
Where’s a good rationale there, using the insight available, which, in any good coms and marketing practice, insight and data is the key really to having an informed opinion. And then you’re using your experience and your skills thereafter. But if that’s where your audience are, that’s exactly where you should be communicating, especially these customer service complaint type pieces of comms. So you’re doing your social listening on there, because that’s how people may not necessarily call in to report it, which would be, from an organizational point of view, far cleaner and less public. So if that’s where your customers are, then that’s where you should be. So what are the challenges then, james, that comms people face when pushing for channels that involve more engagement with the outside world, and then also, how can you overcome those challenges?

0:16:10 – James Calnan
Yes, I’m pretty lucky at Eastlight, so I don’t encounter major opposition to encouraging that kind of engagement. I’m really grateful that my colleagues recognize that when someone highlights an issue on a Facebook post and that’s not just a reputational issue, it’s often a service issue and that’s where the solution lies in the services that we provide. But, as you were sort of saying, you’re basically creating an opportunity for customers to criticize you in front of an audience. So you do need to explain the strategy behind it, and I know I’m obviously not privy to the strategies and plans of other organizations. But, as you mentioned, I’m fortunate enough to be doing a CRPR diploma that Eastlight put me through, and so that gave me an opportunity to spend some time doing some research into how others use social media channels and I think, looking at how others use Facebook, especially in comparison to how they communicate with other stakeholders through LinkedIn, for example, that tells a story. What I found was loads of organizations doing it really well and loads of organizations, I think, can do it much better. So I saw examples of Facebook being purely used as a broadcast channel. So people are preventing people from commenting. So you remove that option for two-way engagement, that you remove the option for listening and you remove that option for customer resolution. And then there are others that ATC stuff were on Facebook but stopped posting. They seemed to withdraw because and then you look at the last kind of few posts and they received a flurry of critical comments on them which suggests that they’ve kind of withdrawn from using it because they maybe because they don’t have the resources to respond to it. And then there’s a few that didn’t have a presence there at all, excuse me. And in all kind of three of those cases, all of these, there are always unofficial accounts for the presence. So, and some of those even have more followers than the official accounts, and on those pages you don’t have the opportunity to respond to issues, and people on there certainly didn’t hold back in sharing their thoughts about their landlord.

So the story this told me is that I think for some resonant communications just isn’t enough high enough priority, and there are several reasons why I think it should be. And I would, you know, say let’s go back to our stakeholder mapping and rethink our priorities here. And those reasons are, I think, just to start with, it’s just the right thing to do so. We provide homes to residents who need them. That’s the reason we exist. If we’re failing to communicate well with residents, then we’re not meeting our core purpose. But if that’s not enough, then there’s a couple of other factors that I would say push residents to top of the power interest matrix, and the first is, as of course, social media.

As you said before, we’re in an era where a post can be seen by millions, reputations are made or broken online, and in that context, it’s really worth reflecting that the relationship between your landlord and your tenant is fundamentally unequal.

Residents rely on their landlords to provide a safe and secure place to call home.

Social media is potentially the one place where residents hold a degree of power, so it’s entirely understandable that some will choose to use it without having, and we need to be there for that. And then there’s the new consumer regulations I talked about earlier, and they include something called tenant satisfaction measures, which I will explain very briefly. So these are standards that are going to be published by the regulator for all to see, and most of them are collected through surveys with residents. So, basically, housing associations will be judged as I think we should be primarily on what residents think of us, whether residents think we’re a good landlord, or whether we listen, or whether we provide safe homes, or provide good repairs and anti-social behaviour services, and there’s even one which asks whether we provide information that matters to them. And if we’re failing to do these things, well then that regulator excuse me, intervention that I spoke about earlier awaits us. So relationships with residents are absolutely critical to whether we succeed or fail and, as I said earlier, comms teams have a role to play in supporting those relationships.

0:20:40 – Asif Choudry
Yeah, so some a good set of points there for people to pick up from there in terms of there’s always been that reticence out there with the public facing comms channels and whether I don’t think that’s necessarily within the comms function itself, because everyone in that particular team understands the benefits and also some of the drawbacks of those public facing channels and it’s taken a long time for leadership, c-suite etc to get over that, think well, people will complain about us or they’ll complain about us publicly.

Well, they’re going to do that anyway. Yeah, I think it’s probably important that you’re actually there to respond to it and even if to bring it into an online direct message scenario, which all big corporate organizations will do utility companies etc, sky, whoever it might be they get complaints publicly and then the kind of immediate response is let’s take it offline. But at least if that’s a channel where people are commenting and it could be positive comments as well at the same time that has to be factored in then it’s got to be the right thing to do. Then, james, what would you say are the top tips for comms people looking to update game on social media?

0:22:02 – James Calnan
Yeah, so I’ve focused on Facebook, but I think I’ve got a few tips I’ll share shortly, and I think they’re valid on most channels, because I think if you get Facebook right, you can get anything right. So if you post something on LinkedIn and it doesn’t quite hit the mark, then it just won’t get in the engagement and it will disappear and end up in this big graveyard of indifference where 99.0% of social media content ends up. But if you get Facebook wrong, if you get the tone wrong, the hero of the story isn’t right, if the purpose of the post isn’t clear, then you can rely on Facebook users to let you know pronto, and we’ve certainly found that at Eastline. So yeah, get Facebook right, you can get anything right, except maybe Twitter. That’s a tough ask at the moment. But anyway, here’s a few tips.

I’ve broken the rule of three and I’ve come up with four, and the first one is just be ready to engage. And as you were saying earlier I think I’m preaching to the converted in terms of comms people that the challenge is making the case within the organisation, and I think that’s absolutely key. With engagement, you need to be ready to respond when the service queries come in, and the argument I would make is, if you don’t, is that social media, customer service, should be a basic business function. It shouldn’t be optional. If you don’t have the resources to provide good customer service or social media, then you just need to convince your business to find them. So do that, then get those processes in place so colleagues from key parts of the business are available to provide those sort of timing and authoritative responses to residents’ queries and resolve them as quickly as possible. And then, of course, the other thing is just to ensure I think some organisations have customer services doing this. I have communications team either works. Make sure they’re on hand to respond to appropriate and don’t overthink this. Just be empathetic, just sound like a human being and you’ll probably be fine 99 times out of 100.

The second tip is just be relevant. So, as Smarter comes to people, the me have said social media is part of our personal life. So if we as organisations want to enter that sphere, we must provide value. And Facebook isn’t where you tell everyone how great you are. Save that nonsense for LinkedIn, save the PR stuff for the more corporate channels. Facebook is where you provide information of interest to your residents. Focus on the nuts and bolts. So, for example, like most landlords, we’re increasing residents rent this year. That’s our decision. It’s a difficult one, but we want to own it and we want to explain why on Facebook we’ve taken that decision and we also want to make clear the support available if residents are struggling.

So talk about the things that matter to your audience. Then, thirdly, I’d say, be interesting. So there’s a three second rule If your content is boring, residents will just scroll on. So get creative. As part of my research, I saw some really good examples of housing association organisations doing this really well. I’ll mention one 13. So they published a cartoon of a living room and they ran a competition to spot the virus there, and it got tons of engagement and it was obviously really important a message to get out as well. So think about those messages you need to get out there and how to make them interesting and engaging. And then, finally, think about ways to build a community.

So, going back to housing, we’ve had something called the Better Social Housing Review, which is an independent panel, and it looked at ways of addressing some of those issues that I talked about earlier, and one of the recommendations was housing associations.

You need to go where your tenants are, and the focus of the report was actually kind of out in, let’s say, the real world and it was about creating community-based hubs. But, as we’ve already talked about, our tenants are on Facebook, so actually the opportunities to go where your tenants are are on there. So, just to mention another housing, I don’t know these guys but Kiro. They held regular Facebook live events and they’re really well attended. They have loads of questions. Many of them were answered on the spot by the CEO and I think if you try to do something similar, if you try to set an office up in some empty unit, a local shopping centre, I think you get a fraction of that turnout. So, above all, social media is your opportunity to build those stronger relationships with your residents, with your key audiences. So it’s something I think we should use wisely.

0:26:59 – Asif Choudry
There’s some really great tips there for people to admire which sector. To be honest with you, there’s lots of good stuff in there. So we’ve unpacked so much in those questions there, james, about you know, as the title suggests, stop being anti-social, start a conversation on social media. So I’m sure there’ll be lots of people, the listeners, within the comms teams, wherever they’re listening, agreeing, disputing, or you think you know, I’ve got the same challenges and maybe I can go back and see if I can overcome those. So some really good stuff for people to take away. So we’re here because we’re connected, james, through the comms. There are community. So why is comms there important to you? Would you recommend people working in comms and marketing to be part of it?

0:27:40 – James Calnan
Yeah, of course and I think I’m going to say things that are sort of fairly. That are the speakers on your podcast. That’s spoken about before but the number one reason is community. So certainly my experience as many comms people they’re in small teams or they’re one man bands and they are surrounded by people who are perfectly nice but they just simply don’t understand what you do. So you know, my other still tells me I send emails for a living and I still haven’t won that battle yet.

So having that community of people who understand you is well. It’s almost like therapy sometimes. You can share experiences, you can, and there’s that recognition that we’re all dealing with the same issues and chances are all dealing with them pretty well, I think. And then the other thing is it’s just building on. That is the confidence that brings. So you know, we live in a world where comms teams do, unfortunately, sometimes need to justify their existence. They do need to make the case that they can perform a strategic function within that, within their business. So having that confidence and knowledge and skills to demonstrate why good communication is the key part of the solution to whatever challenge your organization is taking on is is, is critical and having that community helps you and helps you understand the value you bring and helps you make that case. I think.

0:29:06 – Asif Choudry
Thank you for that, james, and that is definitely a common theme in the community is definitely the reason it still exists somewhere in our 10th year now. That comes on so much because people have benefited from the connections that they’ve made, the ability to be able to sound out other peers in the same or different sectors, and things like that as well, and that’s invaluable to to bring those people, give people a safe space to, even if it’s just to get stuff off the chest, like did you get a? Can you just require a request? You know they’re, they’re, they’re pretty common place. So thank you for sharing that. It’s appreciated in the spirit of community. I always encourage our listeners to connect with the guests, so where will people find you, james?

0:29:54 – James Calnan
Yeah, so I’m. I’m fairly dormant on Twitter now, so I think the best way to connect with me is via LinkedIn. If you search for James Cannon, you will find me. Please, please do. I’m really keen to you know here, build my connections and hear from as many people as possible. Find out what they’re up to. So yeah, james Cannon on LinkedIn.

0:30:17 – Asif Choudry
Yeah, and you’ll get a flurry of invites coming through on your LinkedIn as well. So apologies for that, maybe not no very well Brilliant. So you’ll find this podcast on Spotify, apple or your chosen platform and on our website, commseracom. You can follow us on Twitter or X at commsera, and if you do listen on Apple and Spotify, please leave a rating and review and hit the follow and subscribe button so you can get all the latest episodes as they come out. So, james has been an absolute pleasure, really informative, and thanks for sharing your host of wisdom with us.

0:30:49 – James Calnan
Thanks for the opportunity. Yes, Ethan, Thanks.

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