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Be your own spin doctor

Who has been on the phone asking awkward questions? A new book tells you how to come up with the right answers.

As the failure of Construction Week and the Year of Engineering Success have shown, civil engineering's ability to communicate a positive message is still far from impressive. But laying the blame at the door of national initiatives or bodies like the ICE is to miss the point.

The real responsibility lies with the thousands of individual companies making up the industry which - day in, day out - feed out all sort of negative vibes about quality, safety, environmental awareness and much more.

With this in mind, there should be plenty of customers for Corporate communications in construction, a new book promising guidance on 'public relations strategies for successful business and projects'.

The book's authors are two University of Leeds academics and Nuttall's head of public relations Alan Smith. A cross between a 'how to' guide and a management school textbook, Corporate communications in construction is full of good advice and only once slips up, albeit in a major - and rather worrying - way.

The book opens by introducing the concept of 'stakeholders', which 'provides a mechanism for identifying those groups that have a stake in the organisation; that is, those who influence or are influenced by the business. This allows communication activities to focus on those stakeholders that are influential in the organisation's development and success.'

Stakeholders are defined as owners/shareholders, suppliers, competitors, employees and customers.

Having defined the target audience, the book then moves methodically through all areas of corporate communications, including: corporate identity; client and press relations; dealing with the City and Government; community contact; in-house communication; crisis management; and the required management skills for a successful PR operation

The book's one piece of bad advice comes in an otherwise sound chapter on 'communicating safety in construction'.

In it the authors claim: 'Certain sections of the technical construction press have appeared in recent years to have moved down the route of tabloid newspaper journalism when it comes to safety issues. For journals that are supposed to inform and promote their own industry, it is amazing how many times journalists will spot the slightest potentially or perceived danger in a situation and then blast it across the front page without either researching the situation further or seeking an explanation.'

This - quite frankly - is rubbish, and what's more it is potentially dangerous rubbish.

The claim of 'tabloidism' - always the first allegation of those who dislike the attention they are getting from the press - is both wrong and nonsensical. Not only does the above scenario happen very rarely, the laws of libel are such that any journalist making spurious claims on an issue as sensitive as safety would soon find themself on the wrong end of a writ.

The truth is just the opposite. Construction journalists often turn a blind eye to safety lapses on the sites they visit. If journalists deserve criticism, it is because they are guilty of this: after all, as well as 'informing' and 'promoting' the industry, our job is also to police it.

In reality, any bad publicity arising from a picture showing an unsafe site usually arises through accident. Typically, a lapse the journalist has missed is picked up by an eagle-eyed reader.

Later in the same chapter, the authors advise that a safety officer visits a site twice immediately prior to a journalist's visit. In other words, poor safety is bad, but getting caught is the real crime. That a highly dangerous place such as a construction site should have to be double checked just because a journalist pays a visit is an insult to the people who work there every day.

The real secret of ensuring good publicity is to cut the disgraceful accident figures which still afflict the industry, not to attempt to paper over the cracks in site safety regimes.

Alastair McLellan

Corporate communications in construction is available from Blackwell Science (01865) 206086, price pounds37.50.

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