ANALYSIS: Mortgage lenders are ahead in the PR game

The growing amount of coverage generated by in-house PR departments' stories of house price changes represent a triumph for mortgage lenders' PROs, says Andy Allen.

It has evidently not escaped the PR industry's attention that every Englishman's home, as well as being his castle, is now also his favourite topic of conversation, particularly when it comes to how much it's worth on the UK property market.

Barely a day goes by without some organisation announcing its latest findings on the direction of property prices. An array of stories shows prices either plummeting relentlessly earthwards or doing just fine, thank you. Sometimes on the same day.

Among those releasing regular surveys are the Land Registry, The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, web property database Hometrack and many of the big mortgage lenders. At the same time, smaller lenders often contribute local surveys and titbits of the kind that identify Shropshire as 'the new Notting Hill'.

But it is mortgage lenders, specifically market leader Halifax (HBOS) and number two Nationwide, who truly command the media's ear - since they are the only two to run a monthly index on the subject.

Ultimately, it is the resources expended by the big two on their surveys that seem to count in terms of volume and quality of coverage.

Nationwide and Halifax sit in first and second place in the mortgages section of analysis company PressWatch's Financial Products offering, which gives rankings based on quality and quantity of coverage. Yet, surprisingly, the next two places are occupied by relatively small players - Portman and Bristol & West.

According to PressWatch marketing executive Marcus Postlethwaite, it shows that with a good product portfolio and well-targeted PR the smaller players make an impact without having the backing of large research departments.

This explains in part why the smaller brand names appear in the top five.

PressWatch allocates two points for a mention, and then up to a further 15 positive or negative points according to how positive the copy was.

Portman hit a disproportionate number of points-per-mention, meaning that despite being mentioned rarely in the press, each mention counted for extra because it was glowing praise. Group comms manager Helen Shaw says: 'We don't do price data, we concentrate on being in the "best buys" section (which earn maximum PressWatch points) in the personal finance sections. We also have a journalist-friendly chief executive in Robert Sharpe and make him available as much as possible.'

Bristol & West PRO Laura Mackendrick says the lack of resources means the bank concentrates on building relations with journalists and targeting niche products at the specialist press.

But when it comes to knowing who to believe on price data, it isn't so much a matter of deciphering PR agendas as understanding that each survey snapshots a different size and segment of the market. Property PR expert John Wriglesworth says Halifax and Nationwide use the same methodology, but don't tend to pick up what's happening at the top of the market in London. The Land Registry offers the most definitive survey, but comes out later than others - last week's applied to the third quarter of 2002.

Clearly, such stories perform a valuable PR function for lenders struggling to stand out in a crowded market - something reflected in the fact that the unit which compiles Halifax's survey is part of the communications department.

Halifax head of media relations Mark Hemingway points out that these surveys offer the company coverage not just in the personal finance and property pages, but also in the coveted news and business sections.

Given that the coverage of Halifax surveys frequently refers to 'Britain's largest mortgage lender', Hemingway has good reason to be pleased. In his view, the coverage gained by this sort of PR reinforces the image of the Halifax as the major player.

The Times property editor Anne Spackman is not sure such surveys - or at least the many spin-offs identifying specific regional booms - are always as researched as they appear. She decribes how, after ten years of property journalism, she saw the floodgates open last year, with vastly increased quantities of press releases arriving and PR increasingly taking on a 'spun' rather than 'informative' feel. The deluge has been largely trying to cater for the expansion of property sections of the kind The Times launched last year.

And, of course, it isn't only stories about house prices that can catch the media's attention. While the world of financial services rarely sets news editors' pulses racing, there are certain buttons that can be pressed.

Hemingway recalls that Halifax has enjoyed particular success with stories about first-time buyers and research into the number of homes lying empty in the UK.

In sum, the expansion in media coverage of house price fluctuations can only partly be explained by our voracious appetite for such material.

The mortgage industry is clearly doing its PR bit, too.

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