Inside in-house: National Trust embracing digital to promote the nation's legacy

The National Trust's comms and content team speak to PRWeek about why it has moved away from the classic PR model - and 'traditional' PR stunts.

Inside in-house: National Trust embracing digital to promote the nation's legacy

What’s the PR structure at the National Trust and how do you work within the wider business?

Nick Foley, head of communications Thirteen people sit within the comms team and we all sit within the brand and marketing department. We are multi-skilled and are very much the engine room that produces content for the National Trust.

We also work closely with the digital team on social media, and have a team of three working on film and locations. We can be working with anyone from Hollywood blockbusters to the latest Sherlock Holmes film, [and] we then look at effective ways to promote [this] to the public.

Daniel Dodd, director of communications and content With the way the organisation is structured, brand and marketing is one of the big central directorates. This area includes the brands team, marketing team and communications and content team.

Laura Appleby, senior PR officer It’s a really collaborative approach and, in terms of the work we do, you often find yourself in project groups in which there will be a comms lead, a digital lead and social lead, for example, and you will be the channel expert for your team. Content is the key thing and we look at the best possible ways it can be used across each of our channels.

What is your agency set-up like?

Appleby We use Mischief. It is our agency for national PR work. We consider it an extension of the in-house team. It has been with us since 2010 working on a project-by-project basis, which I think keeps it hungry. It offers a different perspective and brings a different kind of industry knowledge. We also work alongside a number of other agencies such as Mindshare, which is our media buyer, and 18 Feet & Rising, which is our creative agency.

What standout feature must an agency have?

Appleby The agency has to ‘get us’. We are happy to be challenged, but they have to believe what we believe and it has to be authentic, which is why we are moving away from traditional PR stunts.

Dodd We are selling a cause and a sense of purpose, so everything we and our agencies do must have truth embedded into it.

What’s the balance of proactive and reactive PR, and which takes up more of your time?

Dodd Most of what we do is proactive. As an entire team, we are about 70 per cent proactive, but Laura’s team is almost exclusively proactive – probably about 90 per cent.

Foley Within the houses and gardens team, however, we do handle a lot of reactive enquires, but I think the more proactive we are, the more it sets off the reactive stuff.

How do you handle day-to-day press enquiries?

Alison Dalby, senior press officer We get a huge number of calls from a wide variety of different media outlets. It could be a magazine wanting information for a travel feature, or it could be more contentious, with someone wanting a statement about an issue. Fortunately, we have teams that handle different areas. For example, I handle issues relating to houses, gardens and collections, while Jeannette Heard, senior press officer, looks after natural environment enquiries.

Heard We have seen the number of enquiries grow sharply over the past 18 months, which I think is a result of the Trust’s profile increasing. We now get about 2,000 enquires each year, which we’ve dealt with by employing regional comms specialists and preparing responses in advance.

How do you respond to negative press?

Foley We are extremely proud of the work we do. Last year, only three per cent of the coverage was negative, while 70 per cent was positive and 27 per cent was neutral. In terms of negative press, most of our focus goes into identifying the problem before it becomes one. Our aim is to always do that work in advance wherever possible, but obviously things will come up, so where we cannot act in advance, we do everything you would expect of a comms team. We make sure the story is correct, we look into releasing a statement, we will consider putting a spokesman forward and we make sure we get the right information out there.

Dodd When a news story presents something that’s incorrect, we don’t just sit there, we respond with accurate information.

How important are social and digital PR to what you do?

Dodd It’s hugely important. The social channels have expanded dramatically in the past few years because we have a really good team working on that side of the business. We have about 1.5 million people following our social accounts, with more than 600,000 of those on Twitter.

Is traditional PR still an important part of what you do?

Dodd We have moved away from the classic PR model to being much more content led. We have invested a lot in training, content production and journalistic skills. Nobody just writes a press release any more. If you create something that is being released to the press, you have to consider web, social, images that work... even galleries. Everyone needs to be aware of what each channel needs and how to create more rounded content.

How will your PR strategy evolve in the next few years?

Appleby For the National Trust, PR has already evolved to the point where our gardeners and our teams in the field tell authentic stories about the charity. Those stories don’t always have to come from the press or PR team. Looking ahead, it’s all about widening the network of people who are going to be telling our stories.

Dodd We will always want a core ability to create content. If channels come and go, we still need content. Who knows what the next Twitter or Facebook will be, but whatever it is, we will be able to adapt and use our content on that channel.

Foley We are always looking to build things that have a real emotional engagement so in that split second we can grab people’s attention.

Where do you get most engagement?

Foley In terms of PR and advertising, TV still offers the biggest reach for us, along with radio. And because a lot of our members, particularly older members, still buy newspapers, print is still hugely important to our strategy too.

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