Public relations used to be a minor part of estate agency, something only ‘the big boys’ paid for and with little in terms of direct quantifiable return.
Yet during the downturn – when all sorts of economies were being made by agents and the rest of the property industry – relatively few property PR firms went under. Many big high-end agents actually expanded their PR teams and while small PR companies that specialised in property tightened their belts a little, most were retained by clients.
The conventional wisdom then was that these PR firms survived the downturn because they were steeped in the property business. They knew their stuff and could deliver.
Times have changed if the past few months are anything to go by.
Firstly, several major players (Hometrack, Jackson-Stops & Staff and Douglas & Gordon for example) have dropped property-focussed PR firms with which they worked.
Secondly, new online agencies (who need PR in the absence of long histories and word-of-mouth recommendations) have mostly rejected ‘specialist’ property PR businesses and gone to other more generalist firms.
Thirdly, a whole raft of more modest agencies – small chains, not making huge sums of money I would have thought – are now spending at least a little on public relations. But they too tend to be using generalist PR firms rather than the specialists.
Now of course many specialist property PR firms are still doing well, and deservedly so. I deal with them daily and know many of them to be the best in the business.
But you get the point – a lot of professional property companies feel there’s something to be gained by using different PRs looking at the ‘offer’ of property from a new angle.
“We were fed up being a small fish in a big sea of property clients and prefer being the big fish in a sea of lifestyle clients” was how one senior director explained his move from a PR company with property experience to a small one with no property clients past or present.
Two other discussions in recent weeks then came into my mind.
The first was with someone involved in Rightmove. He said no portal could afford to deal solely with property: people move too rarely for that alone to be cost-effective. Instead, he said, the portals should offer “everything from mortgages to furnishings and pet insurance.”
The second conversation was with the property editor of a national newspaper. She was commissioning a story; we spent two minutes throwing around ideas as to what it should contain. Her final contribution was that “it shouldn’t have too much about properties.”
Her rationale was impeccable: people read property sections for lifestyle, not buildings.
Putting those conversations together with estate agencies choosing to hire ‘outside world’ PRs, and it struck me that perhaps change is afoot.
Maybe, without anyone doing it deliberately, there’s a redefinition of the ‘property’ industry to mean anything we do in or to a home, not just buying/selling/letting/renting it.
Perhaps an inexperienced pair of eyes can see things which those of us inside can’t spot?
If owner-occupier turnover stays at current levels, if investment purchases reduce after April because of new mortgage restrictions, and if Build To Rent and longer tenancies mean tenants will stay put for longer, will agents really prosper if all they do is sell and let?
Is it time to diversify, beyond even the mortgages and conveyancing that some provide?
These days, can we afford to just be ‘property people’?
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn