Of landlords and tenants, victims and villains

Recent media coverage of the 1 July healthy homes standards adopts a classic storytelling approach with ‘victims’, ‘culprits’ and ‘champions’. There are some salient lessons for businesses that want to use public relations in their marketing mix or those that need to protect their business interests. 

Stories about disadvantaged tenants are standard (usually anchored by extreme examples). By and large, landlords and property management companies are portrayed as the culprits (unless they are airing a grievance like ‘required upgrades to heat pumps are excessive’). Most journalists and I suspect many of their readers, seem to view this as the bleating of the well-off trying to protect their profits. 

The consensus seems to be that tenants are the ‘victims’, landlords the ‘perpetrators’ and Jacinda Ardern or the media themselves the champions. It is easy to sympathise with this view because it is true in more than a handful of cases and because the lobbyists for investors and landlords have made a dog’s breakfast of their advocacy.

The first mistake is the familiar refrain: ‘Not all landlords are like that, which has overtones of that ‘Some of my best friends are black’ defence’ – it sounds hollow. Not all landlords are like that, but it doesn’t sound true, and it doesn’t address the problem – it’s just denial. The other nugget is, “Rents will rise,” to which you can hear whispered, “And so will tenants – the market decides the price, not the seller”.

Threats of rent increases are vain attempts by advocates to portray that they also have the best interests of tenants in mind. It may be true, but it just sounds like a threat. The reality is that if you are a property investor, landlord or property management company, you have vested interests, and your first claim to credibility should be to acknowledge that truth.

Regardless of your business or industry, if you want the media to take you seriously, the first rule is to acknowledge that there is a problem. The Government would not act, and the media would not report if there weren’t. It may be the actions of the few that spoil it for everybody, but the Government and media are interested in universal fixes – those that mitigate the worst consequences of an issue.

The media opportunity – and I would suggest the business opportunity itself – is for somebody, somewhere, to explore proactive, market-driven solutions and advocate for these instead. For example, you may look to counter the dynamic and punitive response of regulation with a science-based message. Healthy homes technology company, Tether, provides hard scientific data about the health of a home. Messaging that advocated for the proven health of a home could have meant that landlords didn’t have to install the allegedly ‘excessive’ heating solutions they now find themselves with under the one size fits all regulatory regime. There have been few if any attempts, it seems, to convince the Government that a science-based approach is a good idea.

Recognise which way the wind is blowing, acknowledge the reality, and look for the proactive response both in the media and in your business response. Aim for the champion’s position. For example, a property management company – or a healthy homes compliance inspection service – could volunteer to carry out free health inspections (as well as provide recommendations) for tenants who think their homes are unhealthy. It’s a public service, and while it may annoy some landlord clients, they’re probably not landlords you would want to be associated with in the first place. 

Where there are ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’, you want to be the champion.

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