Publicity without spin: interview with Susan Henderson, UGLE's Communications Adviser

Thursday, 15 March 2012

As UGLE’s Communications Advisor, Susan Henderson’s job is about managing relationships – from dealing with unusual enquires to overseeing information flow

How did you come to work for UGLE?

I’d just moved back to London and popped into an agency looking for a job. They sent me for an interview around the corner at ‘a charity’. As I walked along the road, I realised it was Freemasons’ Hall, as I had recently been reading about Freemasonry. I was interviewed by Director of Communications, John Hamill, for the role of his PA and got the job. This was in 2002 and it couldn’t have worked out better in that I’d been wanting to find out more about Freemasonry and there I was sitting with one of the foremost experts.  

Did your previous experience prepare you for your new job?

Before UGLE, I worked in different areas – from social services, to model agencies and advertising. I last worked for the BBC on news and before that on Comic Relief, sharing an office with Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings & A Funeral. These experiences gave me a good overview of how organisations work and where to find information.

How did you become a female Freemason?

I’d been here a few years before I realised there were regular women’s grand lodges and I wondered if I should join. The Grand Secretary at the time knew I was interested and introduced me to the master of a female lodge who put me forward as a candidate. I already had preconceptions of Freemasonry’s ancient traditions, the rituals and origins and the idea of the knowledge that could be imparted, and the experience was pretty near to what I’d imagined. I’m now a junior warden and am steadily learning more. With Freemasonry, you’re thrown in with varied people who you wouldn’t be otherwise – it’s good for you.

How does your relationship with the Provinces work?

We were doing MQ Magazine and I started helping more with the editorial. That merged with Freemasonry Today to make the magazine we have now and I took on the duty of liaising with the Provincial information officers in gathering stories. They have an important role in bringing to our attention anything that might be of interest in terms of local events or any problems. They also disseminate information from Grand Lodge and have been doing a great job in getting our message out to the local press and communities.

How do you deal with negative press?

National newspapers are in the habit of making slurs about Freemasonry, which it’s very difficult to do anything about. We are an unincorporated organisation, so have no protection under the libel laws. If they make a statement that is untrue or defamatory we can write to them to make a correction but they’re under no obligation to print it. The best way to counter these perceptions is therefore to put out lots of positive information about Freemasonry and hope that it will enable more people to recognise the negative remarks as nonsense.

Where does this negativity come from?

In the Second World War, Freemasons were being sent to concentration camps in Germany and it was decided that Freemasonry should keep a low profile in the UK in case of invasion. Before this, the sight of Freemasons laying foundation stones or participating in parades was common. After the war, the low profile became a bit of a habit. The Cold War also made spy novels popular and these would sometimes cast Freemasons as key characters, so the idea caught light in the public imagination that Freemasonry was a secret organisation. We became aware of this and tried to counter it but the image portrayed in fiction is – to some people – more interesting and exciting than the truth.

What else do people believe?

We get some crazy questions asked through the website – for example, if I join Freemasonry, will I gain magical powers or will it make me rich? A few people have the bizarre idea that Freemasons are reptilian aliens. The more sane anti-masonic ideas tend to be that Freemasons use their membership to gain personal advantage in their careers. When you think about it, that’s the daftest of all because if people want to conspire or do each other favours, they can do that at any time and at any place – in the pub, the golf club, or across the garden fence.

So there are still big misconceptions about Freemasonry?

People misunderstand what the obligations are and what should be kept private. There is no obligation to favour other Freemasons and the only tangible privacy relates to the signs and passwords that give you the right to be present in a particular degree ceremony. They are no more sinister than pin numbers and are used only in the lodge. The passwords and signs are believed to have originated through medieval stonemasons who travelled around the world looking for work and needed to prove their level of competence when they arrived at a distant lodge.

Can Freemasons help counter these opinions?

Some members are overly defensive about Freemasonry because of anti-masonic attitudes. We need to help our members deal with this, to help them calmly explain that it’s not just an organisation for white Anglo Saxon Protestants. In Ireland it used to be said that there were only two things that united them – rugby and Freemasonry. There’s always been one United Grand Lodge with Catholics and Protestants attending without a problem and it’s little things like this that members can tell their friends.

Is your job largely about countering negative opinions?

Not at all. Most questions are from people who want to know about Freemasonry and I spend a lot time answering those. If I answer 30 emails a day that’s 7,800 people a year who will have received a good response, which is invaluable. People don’t think M&S or Selfridges are good companies because they have a nice leaflet or website, they like them because they know they’ll get good service and that’s the best form of publicity. People are too sophisticated these days to be influenced by public relations spin. They go on word of mouth or direct experiences. Days, weeks, years later a casual conversation in a pub about that experience will mean a good impression of Freemasonry is being spread.

Does Freemasonry need to change?

Organisations that follow the whims of the day tend to lose their identity and, to use a marketing term, Freemasonry’s unique selling point is its ancient traditions and its symbolism is its branding. We would be fools to tamper with that. Our strength is that we have remained much the same through many political changes and fashions. I’d personally like everyone to understand that we are not even allowed to discuss politics or religion in the lodge, so can hardly be colluding; that there have been established female lodges for over 100 years; and that we’re not just recently jumping onto some politically correct bandwagon, but have always been a welcoming universal brotherhood.

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