Laura McKechan: Mastering the art of war

Imperial War Museum London's comms chief is gearing up for the site's renovation and the centenary of World War One. Adam Hill reports.

Sensitivities: McKechan says of the challenge or representing contempory conflicts: 'We can make connections between people today and in previous conflicts by looking at letters and diaries - now emails and video diaries - where the sentiments are ve
Sensitivities: McKechan says of the challenge or representing contempory conflicts: 'We can make connections between people today and in previous conflicts by looking at letters and diaries - now emails and video diaries - where the sentiments are ve

London's Imperial War Museum is good on big bangs: the enormous battleship guns outside its flagship Lambeth site make quite an impact.

Laura McKechan, by contrast, is all understatement. Quietly spoken but quick to smile, the PR chief for Imperial War Museums' London sites and head of corporate and internal comms for Imperial War Museums was not drawn to the institution by the 'war' bit. 'My interest is more in culture,' she says. 'Museums and galleries.'

'Imperial War Museums' looks like a misprint but isn't. The operation has been rebranded from the singular to reflect the four other sites that come under the IWM banner: HMS Belfast and the Churchill War Rooms in London; IWM North in Manchester, and finally Duxford, formerly a wartime airfield, in Cambridgeshire.

IWM recently marked the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict with an exhibition at the Manchester site, but it is already gearing up for the big one: 2014's centenary of the start of World War One, for which it is leading a series of 'cultural activities'. Before that happens, a £35m building project will see the London HQ's lower ground floor dug out, increasing the atrium's height and adding a couple of exclamation marks to its already rather impressive 'wow' factor.

Just under half of IWM's money comes from the Government, with the rest self-generated. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall recently attended a fundraising launch for the new First World War Galleries that will be part of the new space. Hollywood royalty has been calling too, with Steven Spielberg using the museum's extensive library to research War Horse.

IWM's high profile also creates a focus for dissent: visitor numbers dipped after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The 'Imperial' part of the name, with its connotations - good and bad - of the British Empire, also seems to jar slightly in the modern age. But McKechan says there is no plan to change it. 'Moving towards (being known as) "IWM" is clearly a long-term objective, but it may be we don't get there,' she admits with a shrug. 'We recognise "Imperial" can be offputting - but our brand is a great strength as well. And it is actually a very inclusive term - we represent the experiences of the full empire: Australia, Canada, African countries, the West Indies, India.'

The museum's remit is conflict since 1914, but there is very little jingoistic flag-waving on show anywhere. The War Crimes section has video testimony from Rwanda and Bosnia, for example, while the museum opened a permanent Holocaust exhibition, which runs over two floors, in 2000. It all points to a pressing need for sensitivity. 'We work really hard with relatives and survivors, consulting with them,' says McKechan. 'We have to be careful.'

War is also now closer to home for many people than it has been for two generations, with British soldiers on active duty and being killed in numbers. 'What contemporary conflict gives us is a chance to be relevant to an audience who otherwise might not be engaged,' explains McKechan. Current exhibit War Story: Serving in Afghanistan is a striking series of talking heads in which British troops speak of their experiences. 'We can make connections between people today and in previous conflicts by looking at letters and diaries - now emails and video diaries - where the sentiments are very similar,' she says. 'We can draw really strong parallels.'

At times McKechan can appear almost diffident. James Taylor, IWM head of research and information, has worked with her for seven years. 'I don't think we've ever fallen out,' he laughs. 'She's very friendly and doesn't easily get ruffled.'

Despite her air of calm, McKechan is no pushover. Mags Patten, shortly to take over as interim executive comms director at the Arts Council, recalls a stand-out recruit at Channel 4. 'Laura very much sticks in my memory,' says Patten. 'She was organised, professional and had the complete skill set at that young age. She burned with enthusiasm for the job.'

This is still evident as McKechan talks about how her work is changing. 'There are no living veterans from World War One and we are reaching that point with World War Two,' she says. 'That has an impact on our PR campaigns. We used to draw on veterans quite a lot. They are getting older: we need to be mindful of what we are asking them to do. We have to look at other ways of doing things.'

Next up for McKechan and her three-person team is comms for the London renovation. 'We need to get our messaging right for this,' she muses. 'But there are amazing media opportunities in that.'

Part of the PR challenge comes in mitigating the disruption: the museum will be completely closed from January 2013 for six months, only partially reopening next summer. Taking objects including a Spitfire and a flying bomb down from the atrium ceiling and moving them to Duxford is quite an operation too.

'It's a very interesting thing,' McKechan enthuses. 'It's not done very often.' Time-lapse photography will record progress for online viewers but, whatever happens, the men in hard hats will have to be out of there by 14 August 2014. The centenary date is non-negotiable. 'Unlike some construction projects, this can't run over,' she laughs.

McKechan has other deadlines to think about as well: in June she will celebrate her 34th birthday on maternity leave, expecting her second child. It is lucky that she likes a challenge.

CV

2011 Head of comms, Imperial War Museum London, and head of corporate and internal comms for all five sites

2006 Comms manager, Imperial War Museum London

2004 Press officer, Imperial War Museum

2002 Publicist and then account manager, TV and drama, Premier PR

2000 Publicity assistant, Channel 4 Factual

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Getting my first job at Channel 4.

Have you had a notable mentor?

From Mags Patten (head of publicity at Channel 4) and (chief publicity manager) Lysette Cohen, I learned about how to manage difficult media situations. But I have learned a lot from all the people I've worked with.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Try to get relevant experience: there are a lot of transferable skills within PR but there are differences between sectors. And don't be put off by having to spend time at the bottom. Market yourself while you're there.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Enthusiasm for the museum and what we're doing. This isn't a sector that is going to pay you a lot compared with some others - but there are other rewards. A sense of humour is always good.

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