Taking control of the media
In the wake of the summer’s riots, landlords are using social media to debunk stereotypes and show the good in their communities. Charlotte Goddard finds out how
When ministers refer to social housing as ‘too often a place of intergenerational worklessness, hopelessness and dependency,’ as pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith did earlier this month, there is definitely a problem of perception. Media and political responses to the summer’s riots in England have painted a grim picture of social housing and its residents. Inside Housing’s Riot Report, jointly produced with the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation, asks how we can prevent them happening again.
But tenants and social landlords are fighting back themselves, using social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Steve Howlett, chief executive of 19,000-home Peabody, last month called on the sector to ‘do more to bring positive representations of young people and social housing tenants to the mainstream… using tools such as Flickr, Youtube, Audiboo, Twitter and other forms of social media - and by empowering residents to get online’.
Peabody runs the Pembury estate in Hackney, east London, which was widely and negatively featured in coverage of August’s riots. ‘I was really cross about how the Pembury estate was portrayed as a war zone,’ says Mr Howlett. ‘I said things on Twitter and on my blog and included photos of what it was actually like and, as a result, we were invited to discussions with Hackney Council about how we could help move things forward.’
Social media is not just a tool for chief executives. Social media advice service Podnosh works with housing associations and local authorities to facilitate free ‘social media surgeries’ in which housing workers and tenants are taught how to use social media to strengthen and represent their communities.
Managing director Nick Booth cites the blog WV11.co.uk, run by Wolverhampton Homes tenant Steph Jennings, as an example. On her blog Ms Jennings writes: ‘I honestly believe Wednesfield has more to offer than many residents often give it credit for and wanted to do something to redress the balance of negativity around where we live.’
It’s still too soon to gauge the overall success of this approach, but early signs are encouraging. Social Breakfast, an online campaigns forum for young people set up by Birmingham’s 1,100-home Ashram Housing Association (www.socialbreakfast.org) has had several of the campaigns run by its users - including a recent drive to get more single mums to work from home - picked up by the local media.
Pictures, audio content and videos can counter negative stereotypes as well as words, and can be easily shared using smart phones and sites such as Audioboo, Flickr and Youtube.
‘One of the issues for social housing residents is that internet access has been quite low, but where they are on a par with others is smart phone use,’ says Louise Vaughan, director of communications company Acceleris, which has worked with social housing organisations. ‘You can use that - for example, competitions where kids can take photos of what they like about their neighbourhood, or what they would change.’
A music video shared on Youtube and created by a group of young people from Peabody estate Vanguard Street, for example, highlights the issues they face.
While many associate social media with young people, older tenants should not be neglected. ‘Your active citizen is often older - they have already found their voice. You are helping them get it out there’, says Podnosh’s Mr Booth.
Access all areas
Of course, in order for tenants to become more active in social media they need to be connected to the internet in the first place. The Social housing digital inclusion action plan, published by the Social Landlords Digital Inclusion Strategy Group last year, claims 70 per cent of people who live in social housing do not use the internet, and calls on housing providers to deliver a ‘get online’ campaign.
Many are already active in this area. Peabody has run projects where younger residents help older ones get online and has provided free online access to around 1,000 residents, while Birmingham’s 1,100-home Ashram Housing Association is running workshops for the over-55s.
Empowering tenants to use social media has a flipside. What if they criticise your organisation online? After Ashram set up Social Breakfast, it decided to make the organisation independent.
‘We realised it was important to be independent, as some of the issues raised by young people might be to do with housing, and it wasn’t Ashram’s place to be saying these things,’ explains Edward Evans, director of Social Breakfast.
Social Breakfast provides an antidote to the images of hooded rioters that dominate the press. ‘It is not the case that young people don’t care about their communities,’ says Mr Evans. ‘But often they don’t have the skills and knowledge to engage in the civic process. We provide a safe space for young people to voice their concerns and campaign for change.’
Social media explained
Flickr - www.flickr.com - A way of sharing photos and videos online; users can create groups in which a number of people can post pictures, or can post pictures individually
Youtube - www.youtube.com - Allows users, either individuals or organisations, to share videos and create ‘channels’ around a theme
Audioboo - www.audioboo.com - Allows users to make digital recordings of up to five minutes on their mobile phones, which can then be shared, with pictures
Twitter - www.twitter.com - Users can send and read text-based posts or Tweets of up to 140 characters. Good for reaching a professional audience and the media
Facebook - www.facebook.com - Allows organisations and groups, as well as individuals, to share news, links, photos and discussions
Hyper-local - Describes a blog or other content about a well-defined area such as an estate or a particular postcode, written by and aimed at local residents