The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – A case of mistaken identity

A high profile and sensitive news story requiring careful handling

Client

In the Autumn of 2000, a local historian discovered that the house which had always been believed to be that of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, had never in fact belonged to her.  His research indicated that her house was actually Glebe Farm, close by and, fortuitously, also owned by the Birthplace Trust.

Type

Retainer

Services

Crisis PR, Event management, Media Relations, Stakeholder relations

Brief

 

  • To make the announcement to the press, and given the international interest in Shakespeare and Stratford, this meant both national and international media
  • To prevent the story becoming a crisis for the Trust by minimising the potential embarrassment arising from the mistaken attribution and the fact that millions of visitors had visited the wrong house over the years
  • To complete the project as quickly as possible before the story leaked out

Strategy

Until this project our PR work for the Trust had taken the form of targeting a specific number of journalists across different areas of the media and ensuring that they were fully briefed and had access to the Trust for interviews and photographs.  The anticipated general interest in the Mary Arden story meant that all the nationals and the television stations would wish to cover the story.  Given the limited timescale and the number of journalists involved, we opted to stage a press conference at Mary Arden’s House.

Containment of the story was a key issue; only one journalist received a detailed  advance briefing and all were bound to a strict embargo until the time of the press conference.  To ensure a good attendance press packs were sent out to reach journalists two days in advance, along with the invitation to the press conference.  The packs contained the historical notes explaining the discovery and photographs of the two houses. The press release was dispatched to all the major news networks and papers in the USA, Japan and Europe as the UK embargo was lifted.

The format of the press conference was flexible.  In addition to the short formal announcement, we had assembled all the key personnel involved in the story – the Director and the Chairman of the Trust; Dr Nat Alcock who had made the discovery; and two other historic building experts.  They were available to answer questions and also to give individual interviews.  In all, three hours were set aside for the event with journalists able to book interview times in advance.

Throughout the planning period and the event itself we worked directly with the Director of the Trust, liaising with a team that included the Trust’s senior personnel.

Result

The story made headline news in all the national newspapers and also the London Evening Standard.  The BBC, ITV and Sky turned up to film and both the local radio stations broadcast interviews.

Although the case of mistaken identity caused some amusement amongst the press, the coverage on the whole was positive for the Trust, recognising their integrity in making public the story and the fact that they had preserved the real Mary Arden’s House from destruction.