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Changing Perceptions - an Interview with UGLE's Director of Communications and Marketing Michelle Worvell

Monday, 15 March 2021

Director of Communications and Marketing Michelle Worvell has an ‘outsider looking in’ approach, which means she’s not afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to opening up Freemasonry to the wider public

When Michelle Worvell was overseeing an expanded Open House event at Freemasons’ Hall in September 2019, she found it completely natural to take a more hands-on approach. Michelle had arrived in
March 2019 as the UGLE’s bustling new Director of Communications and Marketing and one of her first initiatives was to get the organisation more heavily involved in Open House than previous years. She particularly wanted to make the event more family friendly, recognising this would be an important way to attract visitors while cementing positive perceptions of Freemasonry at an early age.

So, when Michelle saw a small boy outside, accompanied by a more enthusiastic parent but reluctant to visit the building himself, she made it her business to keep him happy. Michelle escorted the boy around the building with his mother, introduced them to the children’s trail, helped locate hidden features in the stained glass windows and showed them where to get plastic bricks to make a model of a dragon.

He’d been dragging his heels about coming in but was one of the last people out of the building,’ says Michelle, still thrilled at the reaction. ‘I’ve got a six-year-old and I know what they expect. So when I organised Open House, I created things for children to do. We made it fun and that attracted families through the door. We went from 3,000 visitors the previous year to 9,000 over the weekend and were the second most popular attraction in London.’ 

The incident illustrates the enthusiasm and enterprise that Michelle has brought to the role since she joined UGLE, as she strives to change negative perceptions of Freemasonry, spread positive stories and improve communication among members.

Michelle’s background had been in the insurance and financial industries, but when she saw an advertisement for the job at UGLE, she was intrigued, knowing little about Freemasonry. After doing some research, she realised that UGLE Chief Executive Dr David Staples was starting to fight back against Freemasonry’s negative image but she felt it should go further still.

'I could see an opportunity to move into positive proactive messaging,’ she says. ‘I noticed there was little coverage in the press. Lots of people were talking about Freemasonry but not about what Freemasons were saying themselves. There was no move to change perceptions and build relationships with journalists.

‘The scale of the problem was scary. It would be like turning an oil tanker. But I have passion and I wasn’t going to take the job unless I could make a difference. I recognised there was massive potential, and that David really wanted to change things but needed a communications team that could work closely with him.’

To turn that tanker around, Michelle rebuilt her team, promoting from within and recruiting externally to broaden the department’s skillset. Responsibilities are broad, covering corporate communications, marketing, events, PR, internal and membership communications and website and social media.

Michelle realised she had several assets she could utilise, including the work of the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF, the Freemasons’ charity), FMT, the Museum of Freemasonry and the relationships some of the Provinces had established with local newspapers. Working directly with the Provinces to leverage those connections proved to be a successful approach.

‘In January 2020, we had a forum for Provincial Communication Officers, getting them together so they could network and share best practice,’ she says. ‘We created a brochure and allowed the Provinces to adapt it locally. They can use local photos, local quotes and their own crest and contact details so there will be 48 Provincial versions that give the same message to the public. We are doing the same with press releases. We can also take ideas from the Provinces such as #TimeToToast, which got us trending on Twitter for the first time.’

Michelle’s plans for 2020 were disrupted by the pandemic, which made communication more important than ever. Contacting members doubled, and the First Rising email newsletter was created to correspond directly with them. This was sent every three weeks to 157,000 members and had an excellent rate of readership.

The charitable work carried out by MCF and Provincial charities during the pandemic provided a valuable source of positive news. The team got hundreds of stories about how Freemasonry was supporting those affected by COVID-19 published in local and national press. These articles were seen by more than 53 million people.

As the situation improved over the summer, Freemasons’ Hall was able to take part in Open House 2020 and was again the second most popular attraction in London, with a further 5,000 people watching virtual tours.

An organ recital at Freemasons’ Hall received almost 40,000 views on YouTube, while a projection of poppies that lit up Freemasons’ Hall to mark Remembrance Day became yet another viral hit. The team also maintained strong internal communications so UGLE staff could stay connected as they worked remotely.

‘We have had the largest number of enquiries ever of people interested in becoming Freemasons,as a result of the press we are getting about COVID-19,’ says Michelle. ‘We have achieved a lot in two years, especially given the pandemic and the fact we didn’t even have a basic structure when we started.’

There will be no slowing down in 2021, with a new external website being created. The PR blitz will continue, with UGLE following up on the positive stories created during the pandemic as Michelle builds on new relationships in the national press – ‘even The Guardian’, grins Michelle.

She is particularly pleased that a website revamp has already seen the UGLE page become the first Google result when people search for ‘female Freemasons’.

As a woman and non-Freemason, Michelle is sometimes asked how she is able to represent Freemasonry. ‘My answer is that it is sometimes better to be outside looking in,’ she says. ‘I have become extremely passionate about Freemasonry. And I am a strong advocate of the Craft. I have access to expertise as I have Freemasons in my team but sometimes it takes a person from outside to push the boundaries. I hope people can see that my enthusiasm is infectious.’