Changing perceptions, crisis communications and rebranding


From 2001 through 2011, Imaj served as communications and design agency of record for Rhode Island Housing.

Rhode Island Housing Mortgage and Finance Corporation (RIHMFC), a $2 billion housing quasi-public agency, and Rhode Island’s largest mortgage provider for low-mid income Rhode Islanders, was suffering from several issues. The two most critical were:

  • Much of the RI community – including media – viewed them as untrustworthy due to a past controversy with former leadership, a perception that they simply could not shed.
  • Affordable housing, a phrase used widely nationally and locally, carried with it loads of baggage due to misconceptions of its meaning and those it helped. Our research showed almost all segments of RI Housing’s audiences associated the phrase with “section 8 housing,” and associated those who qualify with the terms “lazy slackers.” However, RI Housing had led the pack nationally in revamping affordable housing to be more high quality, respectful, positive living environments, and those they served were actually the everyday, median income hard-working family.

Our overall goals were:

  • To help RIMHFC overcome the negative perceptions in the media and general RI public.
  • Work with staff to embrace new brand and messaging
  • Create Internal communications strategies
  • Work with media to embrace/communicate new brand and messaging
  • Develop new and improved relationships with media
  • Clarify the organization’s mission with all audience, from grassroots to grasstops.
  • Clarify and market each of the dozens of services and products to each distinctive audience, including:
    • RI’s homeless population
    • Low-income Rhode Islanders
    • Minority and immigrant Rhode Islanders
    • Community partners
    • Banks and mortgage partners
    • Legislative bodies
    • Media
  • Increase web and social presence
  • Improve legislative reporting measures and relationships
  • Create partnership strategies and new partnerships
  • Handle all public relations and crisis communications
  • Train staff through workshops and trainings
  • Handle ongoing communications, planning for partner initiatives and implementation of all communications tactics

Imaj first conducted thorough research to identify key areas of need, current biases, attitudes about housing and impressions of RHMFC. This phase included focus groups, meetings with key stakeholders and partners, and workshops using developed personas and reframing techniques. We then created an overall, three-year integrated marketing communications and rebranding plan for the agency. The marketing communications plan focused on the first year, with a 3-year outlook. It included a segmentation of audiences, a thorough SWOT analysis, key messaging for each audience, goals, strategies, and implementation tactics, timeline and costs.

BRAND: Our first implementation step was to develop a new brand to help shed the acronym RIHM-FC, which carried too much negativity. From then on they would be known as Rhode Island Housing (the term housing had to remain in the name due to statutory issues). An entire identity of new visuals and language elevated the brand as a positive resource and a builder of economic stability for the state. Imaj managed the change by performing and conducting extensive training workshops and events with staff to help them understand and embrace the new brand.

LANGUAGE/MEDIA RELATIONS: Next, Imaj tackled language in the broader sense. We held editorial meetings with media to encourage the use of the new name. Since the legal name could not change and a DBA was being used, media was refusing to change until our one-on-one meetings. Our time spent with media was key to fostering new relationships and creating a better understanding of affordable housing. We recommended Rhode Island Housing never use the phrase “affordable housing” again. Instead, we used “homes that are affordable” and “homes for working families in RI.” In fact, we redefined much of the language surrounding the products and services RIH offered to better reframe and shed terms that brought immediate negativity to mind. Within several years, we helped RI Housing shepherd its many partner organizations toward the same objective.

ONGOING PLANNING: We continued to develop annual updates to plans and micro-plans for every subsequent initiative.


Our work for RI Housing included rewriting, planning and redesigning over 200 collaterals and ongoing design work throughout nine years including:

  • A 500-page website
  • Legislative briefings, community newsletters, customer newsletters
  • Hundreds of product and service brochures and subbrands
  • Signage, media backdrops
  • Event presentations and backdrops
  • Window art
  • Stationery for 17 departments
  • Overall capabilities kits
  • Press kits
  • Boilerplate press language
  • Speeches

Imaj completely rebranded the agency and created dozens of multimedia campaigns and initiatives, applied the looks to every possible surface and media, from ads and presentations to the web and everything in between. Imaj also handled all marketing communications planning, crisis communications, and public relations, photography, and video for the complex Quasi-public agency.


We worked with RIH through the most tumultuous years in housing of the last century. Crises abound and we handled every one by implementing a crisis plan, a phone train and staff training while providing hands-on support through letters, media relations, government relations and/or press conferences. Our crisis communications work included dealing with:

  • Predatory lending
  • Vote yes on 9/Bond support
  • State appropriation of $26 million from Rhode Island Housing’s operating funds
  • Advent House issue
  • Fair Housing
  • Out of Reach
  • Bedbugs
  • House of Compassion issue
  • Housing Stimulus and various federal plans and funding changes
  • Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac issues and consumer reaction
  • Underwater Homeowners
  • “As Is” issue
  • Foreclosure Help Scams
  • Carpenter’s Union issue
  • CNN coverage of Rhode Island housing market
  • TCEP and TCAP community uproar
  • Tenant Rights in Foreclosure legislation

We worked to enhance partnerships through facilitated meetings, co-partnered media relations, social media campaigns, community events, legislative briefings and event facilitation.


We spearheaded ongoing grassroots efforts including community events, community outreach programs, and enhanced social media presence through integrated social planning.


Through our work with RIH, we branded and did comprehensive communications plans for several offshoot/partner initiatives including; KeepSpace, HHFRI, HelpCenter, and and FairHousing.


Ongoing metrics were implemented – using tracking agencies, focus groups, and yearly indicator models – to measure the success of every campaign and tactic. We carefully tracked web hits, social mentions, phone logs, and product sales.


Over the course of nine years we effectively helped build RI Housing into a much more cohesive and stable brand, clarifying their goals for all audiences – from those they served (low- to mid-income Rhode Islanders) to the broader community. We managed to change both internally and externally, literally reversing the public perception of affordable housing.



The agency, once viewed as “criminal,” was now positioned as a local authority in the RI housing market that can help and protect new and existing homeowners.

Upward retail sales trends included literally doubling the numbers of mortgages sold, and in spite of a downward trend in the market, tripled web hits, resulted in two years of phone bank increases, and the success of programs like the HelpCenter.

As a result of rebranding and brand building campaigns, the client became sought out by media at least weekly for Rhode Island Housing’s perspective and maintained regular appearances on community shows and business segments.

The successful rebrand and communications strategy won special recognition from NCSHA as a “National model to effectively change negative perceptions about housing.” Imaj accepted several other national awards for work including the logo, the website, the BuySmart campaign, “100 Things to Know” (or FirstHomes 100), and “A Safe Place” campaign.