Why Housing Associations need to embrace social media

23 April 2012 By Northern Lights

Why Housing Associations need to embrace social media image

Is the social housing sector being over cautious in not embracing social media?  Members of The Guardian’s housing network certainly think so.  In February a poll of Guardian housing network members revealed that 83 per cent do not think the housing sector is realising the full potential of social media.

A month after this poll Northern Lights held a small workshop with CEOs and other senior directors of several Yorkshire-based housing associations.  We looked at the challenges and opportunities that social media brings to the sector.  There was an overwhelming feeling in the room that housing associations can no longer ignore social media: there needs to be a shift in culture at the top of organisations both to understand and use it effectively.   

So what are the blocks to the sector, how can they be overcome and where do directors see the opportunities?   Here are the main points from the discussions at our event.

1.       Opportunities from social media

Several people expressed concern that social housing is often seen by politicians as the problem in society, not the solution.  Social media can help to redress that in several ways.

  • Punching above their weight

Taking a strategic approach to social media and using it to engage with major influencers can allow housing associations to boost their credibility as thought leaders.   For example, having an experts’ blog or your chief executive on Twitter and following and engaging with relevant, senior people

  • Involving tenants in governance

As boards face greater scrutiny and accountability, social media enables housing associations to be more transparent, demonstrate value for money and helps to involve in tenants in decision making.  Listening to tenants and getting honest feedback, including complaints, provides nuggets of gold that give invaluable insights to improve services 

Social media can be a powerful and cost effective way of engaging with tenants.

  • Widening participation

Social media can help to widen participation among tenants, particularly to connect with young people who may be harder to engage through more traditional routes such as newsletters, tenant meetings.

  • Duty of care

Housing associations have a duty of care to tenants and senior people felt they could help tenants recognise the potential security risks of social media.  So, for example, they could run courses to help tenants understand what is and is not appropriate to post online as this can have an impact on keeping or finding a job.

  • Apps for tenants

Although a high proportion of social housing tenants do not have computers, many have smart phones.  Housing associations could create apps for tenants to report repairs or pay rents and run courses to help older tenants use smart phones.

There are real business opportunities and benefits to be gained from social media and new technologies. 

  • Hard to let properties

 Social media and smart phone apps can provide effective channels for advertising hard to let properties.

 2.       Potential risks

The greatest concerns were fear of negative comments from tenants and concerns about controlling employees’ use of social media. 

  • Senior management’s lack of understanding

It was generally agreed that much of the fear around the potential risks stemmed from a lack of understanding about social media among senior management.  They are unsure how to manage social media and to deal with comments.

  • Personal v business use

 It feels hard to define the barriers between personal and business use of social media and to advise employees accordingly.   Several people mentioned that someone using Facebook or Twitter in work might be seen as not ‘doing their job’.    In reality they might be engaging with tenants to improve services and communication yet certain social media platforms are still associated with personal use only. 

  • Lack of productivity

Some housing associations shut down all access to sites including Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and YouTube because of concern about the lack of productivity if employees are using social media in work time.  However, that approach won’t stop staff using smart phones to access social media sites.   It’s better to manage than to ignore this issue

  • Defamatory comments

There was also concern about potential legal action and claims, if tenants or employees feel that defamatory remarks are made about them on social media sites.  

3.       Going forward

  • Greater collaboration

Chief executives and directors feel that more collaboration and sharing of best practice between housing associations is the way to ensure that the sector realises the potential of social media. 

  • Cultural change at the top

There needs to be cultural change at board level to ensure that social media is seen as ‘proper work’ and not something that is simply done by a young recruit and isolated from business strategy and goals.    Directors need to be more involved in designing and implementing tenant engagement strategies that are much more than simply pushing information out.

  • Training for senior people

Training for directors and senior managers is critical so that they are confident about using social media strategically themselves and can work with employees to develop guidelines on social media use.

  • Less control over employee use of social media

 Boards need to see the advantages of giving greater freedom and flexibility to staff around the use of social media and work with their employees to develop guidelines and policies.

4.       Next steps

Chief executives and directors asked Northern Lights to take a lead in highlighting best practice and changing attitudes at board level.   Our plans

–          A report and tips on best practice in tenant and resident engagement due for publication in May

–          Creating and running a series of workshops for housing associations on specific social media topics, which can be tailored for individual organisations or run as consortium events.   Including

  • How to devise and implement social media strategies
  • Best practice in tenant engagement
  • Developing employee guidelines for social media
  • Managing online reputation and creating a crisis communication plan  
  • Strategic use of Linkedin and Twitter
  • Effective blogging

If you would like to book a workshop or be notified about future reports please contact Victoria Tomlinson at Northern Lights PR on 01423 562400 or email victoria@northernlightspr.com

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Written by Northern Lights


  • Interesting debate – clearly useful, but clearly a lot of work to do to realise the potential it could be for the sector, not least of which in terms of linking up with customers.

  • The potential for social landlords and their residents to profit from their use of social media is immense as is the potential for them to get it wrong. I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop over the next few months. Exciting times!

  • Time for us to be brave and grasp the opportunities offered by social media to engage with our customers generally but with younger customers in particular. Key point I take away from this that a clutural shift from the top required. Social media should be “seen as ‘proper work’ and not something that is simply done by a young recruit and isolated from business strategy and goals”.

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