14 September 2011
A speech by the VW The Grand Secretary Nigel Brown
Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master and Brethren,
Like it or not, we are in an age of electronic communication! The task I have been set today is to bring you up to date with how we are attempting to align ourselves to the new age of electronic communications in general and, specifically, to let you know about the exciting new members’ website.
First, I ask you all to cast your minds back twenty five years and just think for a moment, how many members of your mother lodge were using computers or, indeed, if the lodge secretary even possessed a computer!
How dramatically different it is today, and certainly since the mid 1990s? The internet has had a radical impact on culture and commerce, including the rise of near instant communications by electronic mail, instant messaging and the world wide web, with its discussion forums, blogs and social networking. The internet continues to grow, driven by even greater amounts of online information and knowledge.
Communication has changed radically in those twenty five years, as you know only too well from your own experience. One of the knock on effects for us is that the majority of our members now do communicate electronically and, what’s more, are expecting that to become the regular way to communicate with their lodges and, here with us, at the centre. With that in mind, I am reminded of the challenges we face: in aligning ourselves as closely as possible to that expectation. From a quote made by John Maynard Keynes, the eminent economist, who spearheaded a revolution in economic thinking, “the difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones”.
Two constant drivers to our thinking are: first, how best to communicate with our members so that they are both informed and feel included; second, how best to communicate with the non Masonic community so that we combat the myths and put correct inaccurate information about us out there, to be picked up by the increasing number of search engines.
Here is a flavour of what we are trying to achieve.
In 2009 the main UGLE website was re-launched. The driving force behind this was to provide information about the Craft for the non mason and, in particular, to attract potential candidates. It is also meant to be a public relations tool for people to understand more clearly what we are all about. That site has proved to be a great success, with an average of 30,000 visitors a month over the last six months; 58% of those coming via search engines; 25% through referral sites and the rest through direct traffic. However, as I stated earlier, this site, though very useful to existing members, was not designed for them specifically. On that understanding, the Board of General Purposes was minded to have a second site developed, dedicated to the membership. Let me be crystal clear! This site, as with the UGLE site, is an open site: no members; only sections; no logins and no passwords.
It is this website, the members’ site, that we have great pleasure in officially launching today. The platform is the old Freemasonry Today magazine site and we have maintained that website address, www.freemasonrytoday.com. The benefits of this site are, that it is article based, and it will include many more articles than we have space for in the printed magazine. In particular, it allows us to be timely with getting news to you and our response to real time events for, example, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis which, I know from experience you are, quite rightly, always keen to know what positive action we have taken say, through the British Red Cross, at a time when it really matters to the people on the ground. For example, if there is one of these natural disasters, we will publish our immediate response on the website, which will then be updated as required. In other words, you will no longer have to wait for the next edition of the magazine to be published.
The website now allows all members to submit articles for potential inclusion. These, in the first instance, go to the relevant Provincial or District Information Officer. He will have been briefed about the key part he has to play, and will make the judgement as to whether it merits inclusion, as well as making sure that the Provinces and Districts use articles for their own websites and magazines as appropriate. Having mentioned Information Officers, we have just called a halt to their intranet, largely because of a judgement in the High Court which resolved that permission must be obtained, from the publication itself, if media articles are to be reproduced online. Also because the members’ site will, in many constructive ways, naturally supersede it.
The state of the art software that we are using has the great advantage of allowing instant changes and updates. I believe that you will agree that one particularly useful aspect of the site is that it is going to allow us to conduct surveys and polls from amongst the membership and to gauge the pulse of members’ opinions on certain selected topics. Additionally, the current issue of each magazine will be available to view as a digital copy on the site, as well as back copies of the new version from issue fourteen and onwards. We have also selected articles of specific interest from copies before issue fourteen, the majority of which have now also been moved across on to the new site for your interest.
We realise that many members, especially younger members, prefer to read the magazine digitally, rather than receive the printed copy. With this in mind, we have now added a digital subscription facility so that members, who wish to, will receive an email alert when each new edition is available on the site. This digital subscription is also available to non - members.
We are also extremely pleased with the number of lodges now launching their own websites and seeking a UGLE Charter Mark; a mark of Grand Lodge approval. The sheer number of lodges, to give you an idea, is around one hundred at any given time. Applying for a charter mark has meant that we have a backlog, as we carefully check each one for technical and Masonic compliance, as well as suggesting possible improvements. To overcome this backlog we have updated the UGLE guidelines for lodge websites to greater reflect the ever changing online landscape. Indeed, let us not forget members’ increased abilities. In particular, we are now happy for sites to be launched, publicised and used as soon as the Province or District is happy that they comply with the guidelines. The charter mark will subsequently follow, meaning that lodges are not inconvenienced any more. At the same time we can still, importantly, maintain the rigour of our checks and, most importantly, the critical check for Masonic accuracy. The last thing any of us want is to allow a site to perpetuate the myths. We do also check through sites to make sure it really does work as it was planned. I am glad to report that we are starting to get good feedback from applying lodges about this new improved service.
Brethren, we have several other sites, but I am not going to talk about them today as time does not allow. So I will not be talking about the excellent new university scheme website, backing a hugely successful initiative. Nor will I, therefore, be talking about the four Masonic charity websites, so ably underpinning our freemasonry cares ethic. Nor the Library and Museum and Letchworth's shop sites or, tempting though it is, the pilot mentors’ website that we are currently working on and that will, in time, prove to be a fantastic tool kit for our budding mentors.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention that, on the business side, the members of the Board of General Purposes and the Grand Secretary are constantly looking at the efficiency of our business: dealing with a huge membership organisation to see that it is ‘fit for purpose’. Amongst other business practices, and relevant to what I am saying today, we are about to look at, in particular, the electronic submission of forms and a timely look at electronic payments. We believe, and I know first hand from travelling extensively in the Provinces and overseas, that this will not only help the Provinces but will be most welcomed by our Districts.
Brethren, we live in exciting times. I trust that this brief taster gives you more of an idea of what we are trying to achieve with our electronic communication initiatives, all of them supporting our policy of openness, and the importance we attach to this area. Specifically, on behalf of the Strategic Communications Committee and the Board of General Purposes, we all trust that you find the new members’ website both useful and interesting, from this memorable official launch day forth, as it successfully evolves over the many years to come.