14 March 2012
A speech by the VW The Grand Secretary Nigel Brown and Jessica Bondy
NB: Most Worshipful Pro Grand Master and Brethren,
I am delighted to introduce Jessica Bondy to those of you who do not already know her. She is our public relations adviser and has been working closely with us on our communications strategy. Put it another way: she probably knows more of what we are all about, and what our aims are, than any other non Mason!
The core, the heartbeat, of the strategy is to dispel myths. But why bother? After all, we know that as the oldest fraternal organisation in the world, our principles have never changed and our timeless values are as relevant today as they were three hundred years ago.
We suggest, as modern Freemasons, there are two reasons in particular why we should bother – you will have others. If we take as a given that we want good press, then the first reason is that, by dispelling the myths it will help with both retention and recruitment and secondly, it will reduce – potentially eradicate – discrimination against us, especially in the public sector.
To explain the determined progress of our communications strategy I use the analogy of Mount Everest. The expedition has started. And we have before us the long haul to the top which we must reach before 2017. I say long haul, because on the one side our members are going to have to be brought up to date with our thinking, which we have started to do with the Provincial Information Officers, and on the other side we must overcome the utter rubbish that has been written about us. I'll now handover. Jessica.
JB: For a communication strategy to work, it is essential to have support at the highest level in an organisation. We have that. So working closely with the Strategic Communications Committee and the Board of General Purposes we are at the first stage of our journey with a clear objective to both increase understanding of, and support for, Freemasonry - and to build a positive reputation for the Organisation. Critical to achieving this is by highlighting your openness and relevance in society today. And rather than just talking about it we have taken action to demonstrate change.
In your assets we have for example proper open websites, the newly highly acclaimed Freemasonry Today magazine, which is increasingly read by family members, a mentoring scheme which includes helping you to talk about Freemasonry openly and sensibly, so that as many of you as possible can become ambassadors for the organisation. All of this will be further helped by a new leaflet designed simply to give people a good feel about Freemasonry.
But more importantly, and for the first time ever, we approached a non-masonic body to produce a report for the media on the future of Freemasonry, written by an independent third party, with no connection to Freemasonry. This was a bold move, but it was essential for the media to both see this as a neutral and outsider's perspective for credibility's sake, and also to act as the catalyst for them to want to talk to us. The Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, otherwise known as SIRC, was selected competitively. They offered not only anthropological expertise, which forms much of the backdrop of the report, but also their research criteria are based on evidence and not ideology. In their words: "We needed to test Freemasonry's claims for openness and transparency".
SIRC set about compiling the views and opinions of a cross-section of Freemasons and non-Masons alike, examining the presence of, or the need for, an element in ritual in all our lives, our need to belong, the ways we express our generosity to others, and the extent to which our everyday lives involve ritual behaviours. The result is a truly insightful and timely commentary, not just on this great Organisation, but also fascinatingly on the complex interactions, perceptions and values of modern society itself.
Just to give you a flavour: among their key findings, is that contrary to much misleading commentary, Freemasonry shows genuine openness and transparency. To quote a piece from the report, "One thing that immediately became apparent was that the notion of Freemasonry as a secret society was clearly inappropriate". More importantly the report ends by saying that it is arguably more relevant today than ever before. It also shows that Freemasonry acts as a 'constant', and by that I mean that it provides members with a unique combination of friendship, belonging and structure, with many Masons saying they have made lifelong friendships. Also, although I absolutely understand that Freemasonry is not a Charity the report also highlights the importance that Freemasonry places on giving – thinking of the needs of others.
For your interest we concurrently ran a survey among non-Masons which showed what a huge opportunity we have. Over half wanted to know more about us and a quarter would consider joining.
So with the report published and in our hands, and the knowledge that people really do want to know more, we took the Grand Secretary on a highly successful media tour, quite literally the length and breadth of the country, which was another first. We felt it important for the Grand Secretary to be on the road and truly show openness by meeting people face-to-face to show we have nothing to hide. So over the past two weeks he has visited twenty locations around the country with forty interviews with local press and radio stations. The response was very positive and he was given the opportunity to communicate a number of the key messages. I will share one headline from the Yorkshire Post written by one of the only women editors: "A Secret Society? No we're Freemasons because we enjoy friendships and fun", and the editor's opener: "For centuries Freemasonry has been known as a 'secret society' but we've got them all wrong".
Nationally, we have also made waves. At best we set off to generate balanced pieces and stimulate debate, with the view that we would be very pleased indeed if they were positive. BBC online was the third most popular story last Friday and generated an unprecedented number of comments running currently at over one thousand. The interview on one of the leading radio stations, LBC, quite literally jammed the switchboard.
You can now all see the report on your Freemasonry Today website. Combining all the media and press interviews, the reach has been to a potential audience of over fifty million!! Grand Secretary.
NB: Here is a brief feedback from the front line for your interest. I was pleasantly surprised by the reception I got from the press and media in the Provinces. Yes, all the questions were based on the typical myths which all of you are aware of, but they were receptive to my answers. National newspapers are very different, being much tougher, more liable to misquote, and going for sensational headlines, but just to get coverage is a further demonstration, very publically, of our openness and acceptance of debate. It is well worth the risk and we need to do this if we are ever to move forward. Let us be very clear: the myths are deeply set in people's minds. But as we move forward we want people to base their judgement on facts – not fantasy. As all of you can imagine, it is a very real challenge to change people's deeply rooted perceptions in a few minutes, but it is a challenge we relish. I leave the last word to Jessica.
JB: These firsts, the report and the media tour, have presented a major opportunity for your organisation. We have to harness and build on the interest now, in order to achieve the impact we deserve in 2017. If we can convert people from negative to neutral at the very least, I believe we will be making huge progress. The SIRC report ends as I do, "If Freemasonry is able successfully to conclude its quiet revolution, while at the same time ensuring that its central features are retained to preserve the true 'spirit' of Freemasonry, then its future may well be assured – for the next century or two at least".
"The Future of Freemasonry" report is the first ever independent study conducted by a non-Masonic body, and was commissioned as part of the build-up to the United Grand Lodge of England's tercentenary in 2017.