Guest blog: The image of construction

This month’s guest blog is provided by Paul Wilkinson, a construction PR and marketing specialist since 1987. He is an advocate of the application of social media in the AEC sector, and an authority on SaaS-based construction collaboration technologies.

Paul Wilkinson: writer, speaker, blogger
Paul Wilkinson: writer, speaker and prolific blogger

Contact details for Paul 

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Build UK (formed by the merger of the UK Contractors Group and the National Specialist Contractors Council) launched this week with a five-point action plan for the UK construction industry addressing:

  • the image of construction
  • industry’s skills needs
  • effective pre-qualification
  • health and safety performance, and
  • fair payment practices.

Little surprise that “The image of construction” tops the list. It also featured prominently in the joint government-industry strategy, Construction 2025, compiled by the current chief construction adviser Peter Hansford in July 2013, and its four-fold ambitions to cut costs, speed up project delivery, cut carbon emissions and improve the industry’s export opportunities have featured in countless presentations. Construction 2025 devotes a whole section to improving the sector’s image. Hansford said “fundamental change is required in how the construction industry is perceived by the general public”, and “engaging young people and society at large” topped his list of areas where action is needed.

However, the sector’s inertia, innate conservatism and its often short-term view could hold it back. Too many organisations sit tight in their disciplinary silos, their leaders not recognising they are part of the problem.

Our industry is great – it just needs better PR. – I have been at conferences where contributors have spouted this kind of utter rubbish. Basically, construction gets the reputation it deserves. As any good PR professional would tell you: the industry’s reputation is the result of what it does, what it says and what others say about it. It can’t control the latter – it can only control what it does and what it says.

Yes, we have some landmark projects (the Shard, the 2012 London Olympic games infrastructure, Crossrail, etc) that are world-leading, but which are often overlooked in favour of ‘cowboy builder’ stories and other negativity. Popular perceptions of construction are often heavily influenced by negative experiences as consumers at the SME level. And these experiences are often a consequence of some of the other industry problems – poor skills, poor health and safety, a lack of diversity, procurement processes fixated on lowest price (not best value), and often antiquated and unfair payment practices.

Active in Constructing Excellence and as chair of the CIPR’s construction and property group (CAPSIG), I have argued at conferences and online (hereherehere and here, for example) that the industry needs to stop thinking of itself as a monolithic entity and start to identify changes it can make across its many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and (most importantly, perhaps) its customers and end-users.

I was cautiously optimistic that the combined thrust of the chief construction adviser, the pan-industry Construction Leadership Council, Construction 2025, and the catalysts of BIM and other digital initiatives might improve matters, but sadly my hopes were dashed. In July the new Conservative government announced it no longer needed an adviser, it slimmed-down the CLC to a token group dominated by contractors, and the future of Vince Cable’s various industry strategies, including, presumably, Digital Built Britain, was called into question.

I do not think Build UK is – as it claims – “ideally positioned to promote collaboration and provide industry-wide solutions for the benefit of everyone” (for a start, the challenge is much, much wider, embracing industry professionals – via the CIC, maybe – customers and end-users, and suppliers and manufacturers, among other stakeholders). However, I take heart from its suggestion that “Agreeing and implementing best practice can drive a lasting culture shift that will improve productivity, deliver growth and make the industry fit for purpose.” If we can overcome the government’s apparent abdication of partnership, and ensure that best practice is accompanied by corresponding changes in attitudes and behaviours from SME workplaces right up to PLC boardrooms then we might have a chance of changing the reputation of the industry currently known as construction.

Evidence, evidence, evidence

I attended a really useful bid writing workshop earlier this week, run by Tender Management Consultancy. You can also catch up with them on Twitter. You may wonder why I was going to a bid writing workshop, but I enjoy getting other people’s perspectives on the subject, because I can always learn something new.

One of the things that was discussed was the importance of providing evidence in PQQs and ITTs, to back up your claims.

Providing adequate and compelling evidence is the most important aspect of construction marketing. But what is it and how do you do it?

Evidence – what?

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Great evidence demonstrates or proves any claims you make in your bid submissions, awards or any other form of marketing communications. It can take the form of project sheets, CVs or other bid responses, and should be at the forefront of your mind when you are capturing project information.

It takes the form of an example, with the outcomes and client benefits clearly shown.

Example Outcome Client benefits
Example 1 Outcome 1  Client benefits 1

Evidence – how? 

I have blogged recently about the importance of capturing project information. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of this information gathering process and making sure it is undertaken systematically and proactively. I know this can be easier said than done, but without this quality information, you really have nothing worthwhile to communicate to potential clients or the marketplace.

I work with construction clients to help them develop compelling evidence for a wide range of marketing communications and bid submissions. 

Reshaping project information into bid and marketing collateral

My earlier post talked about how to capture project information. In this post I am going to talk about the myriad ways you can recycle and reshape it, to create a range of content suitable for multiple channels and platforms.

Marketing Examples
Bid collateral 
  • Case studies
  • Project information on CVs
Marketing communications
  • PR
  • Awards submissions
  • Online and offline media
Online and social media
  • Website content
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
Submission responses 
  •  Develop a bank of library of project information, ready for a range of questions.

The tradition of topping-out ceremonies

The pageantry and superstition of topping-out ceremonies has always fascinated me, taking place, as they do, in the no-nonsense world of construction.

The topping-out ceremony is held when the last beam or equivalent is put in place within the structure. Alternatives can include a ceremonial pour of the last section of concrete or laying the last block or brick. Essentially it signals the frame of the new building reaching its maximum height and while at this stage, much of the rest of the construction is still unfinished, an important milestone in the project has been attained.

The origins of the ceremony can be traced back many centuries across multiple cultures, including ancient Egypt and Native American. However, most sources reference the Scandinavian practice of placing an evergreen tree atop a new building, in a bid to rehouse any tree spirits displaced when the required timber was lumbered. The tradition then migrated across Northern Europe and then the Americas.

Today the practice provides a great PR opportunity for the client, contractor, subcontractors and design team, as well as celebrating the achievement of reaching the highest point of a new building. Given that buildings seem to be getting ever taller, this is no mean feat.

One footnote to this story is that a long time ago, I worked for a main contractor which was running behind programme on a significant and high-profile building. Because of the programme-slippage, it was decided not to have a topping-out ceremony. The construction was challenging throughout the process and the building continued to have issues following its completion. One senior and very experienced construction professional I worked with actually considered the building to be cursed and they thought not having a topping-out ceremony was a very bad idea indeed…