Public relations: hottest spot in town

Saturday, 01 April 2006

Freemasonry is now receiving much better media coverage, as John Hamill reveals

In 1985, when Freemasonry seemed to be constantly under attack in the media, the writer and journalist Bernard Levin wrote two very supportive pieces on Freemasonry in his regular column in The Times. As he was not a Freemason he was invited to have lunch with a small group of senior Freemasons at Freemasons’ Hall. It proved a most valuable occasion.

He saw our problem as being that Freemasonry had been taken out of the public consciousness in the post-World War II period, resulting in the public not knowing what Freemasonry was.

As he put it – it is part of human nature to be suspicious of things we have no knowledge of, and suggested that the best way of altering public suspicion was a return to the openness of the pre-war period, to work with the media and to bring Freemasonry to the public’s notice – in a positive way – on a regular basis.

Grand Lodge took the advice to heart, but quickly realised that the centre could not deal with all the media. In the late 1980s, Provincial Grand Masters were invited to appoint Information Officers, who would have much better local knowledge than the centre, and could establish personal links with their local media.

As a result we now have a network of volunteer Information Officers who, with support from the centre and a great deal of hard work, have had an effect. In many Provinces, Freemasonry is now reported in the local press as interesting local social and charitable news.

The national media is a different game. National newspapers are only interested in stories with a 'that day news' content, which will give them an edge over their competitors. The Grand Lodge Communications Team regularly meets with journalists and have found that the Craft’s belief that there is a strong anti-Masonic element in the media is untrue.

Most journalists, like the public, have little knowledge of Freemasonry. Many of those we have met have become fascinated and keen to write, but hit the problem of their editor wanting a 'that day' news angle on which to hang the piece.

In that, Freemasonry is in a similar position to the many other voluntary organisations, such as Rotary, Round Table, Women’s Institute, Guides, Scouts etc, whose activities are rarely noticed in the national media.

That said, there have been references to Freemasonry in the national media over the last three years showing it in a positive light. As examples: The Guardian interviewed Anne Kent in the Grand Secretary’s office for their series 'Women in a man’s world'; The Independent did a two-page spread on Freemasons’ Hall as a gem of Art Deco architecture; The Times produced a half page on Freemasons’ Hall as a film location; The Daily Telegraph carries brief notices of the meetings of Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter; obituaries of major figures now include reference to their Masonic activities.

Activities with the national and local media all fulfil Bernard Levin’s advice of keeping Freemasonry in the public consciousness, but a more direct way of influencing public attitudes is by inviting them into, and to use for non-Masonic purposes, our Masonic buildings. 

In the last few issues of MQ we have reported on various non-Masonic events at Freemasons’ Hall. In addition to bringing income to Grand Lodge, these events are a major opportunity to let the public see our buildings and have an opportunity of asking questions.

Filming for television or feature films involves a lot of standing around for the actors and technicians. They get curious about the building, we are on hand to answer their questions and usually pass on to them the square booklets and copies of MQ Magazine.

When next somebody says anything to them about Freemasonry, they will have something positive to say about it. Some of the film shoots have even produced candidates.

The fashion shows, film premiere parties and other events have not only introduced a lot of people to Freemasons’ Hall who would not otherwise have visited, but have also generated press coverage.

The recent Julien Macdonald fashion show, which always gets heavy media attention, not only got Freemasons’ Hall mentioned on all the major television news channels, but also in all the reports in the next morning’s papers and in the fashion and gossip magazines.

The coverage by Sky and GMTV included stunning visuals of Freemasons’ Hall all clearly identified. Nothing was said about Freemasonry, but coverage like this gradually gets it over to the public that there is another side to what they have previously been told.

Bernard Levin warned that destroying myths and changing public opinion was a long term job. He was certainly right. But a lot of hard work has been done by a lot of people over the last 20 years and the signs are there that attitudes have changed.

The best example of that is in the local media where, on occasion, the Information Officer has not had to act when someone (usually a local politician) has had a go at Freemasonry in the local press because a local non-Mason (often one who has attended an open day) has written in to challenge what the detractor had said. That certainly is a change!

John Hamill is Director of Communications at the United Grand Lodge of England

A favourite location

Charlotte Clark, a director of Inca Productions, which staged the Julien Macdonald fashion event at Freemasons’ Hall, speaks about her love for the building as a spectacular venue:

Inca Productions has a very long history with Freemasons’ Hall. I first came through the doors to the Grand Temple in 1999 and apparently was the second woman through the doors after Princess Diana. I was instantly seduced, smitten and star struck by the space. Having worked in events for over 15 years now, it is very rare to be rendered speechless by a location, I was instantly star-struck.

The Grand Temple had the same effect on Julien Macdonald when we showed him the space for the first time. As creative director of Givenchy, he has had the opportunity to show his collections in some of the most beautiful venues in the world – he was the first designer to show in the Grand Palais after its refurbishment – in his opinion the Grand Temple is his favourite location to date.

Working in Freemasons’ Hall is a joy from beginning to end. From an event producer’s point of view it does not get much better. The space is never ending, your events team are a joy and nothing appears to be too much trouble. We were even allowed to use a glitter bomb that sent showers of gold into the air and tumbling down onto a sea of supermodels.

One of my favourite memories of Julien’s show was walking out of the Grand temple doors with Paris Hilton after the event. She climbed into her limo, rolled down the window and pointed to the building, smiled and drawled, ‘that’s hot.’ Freemasons’ Hall is now officially London’s hottest venue.

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