York Minster Fire 40 Years On: When Crisis Hits (Part 1 of 3)

As we commemorate this week the 40th anniversary of the devastating fire at York Minster, Margaret Phillips, founder of Phillips Profile, reflects on her initially accidental PR role during the crisis.

On 9th July 1984, a catastrophic fire ravaged the historic cathedral overnight, obliterating part of its roof and vault and causing £2.25million in damage. What took mere hours to destroy would demand four painstaking years to rebuild and restore.

The news of the fire spread immediately, generating national and international media attention. Initially, the clergy had to manage the overwhelming media interest, until Margaret Phillips was able to use her PR experience to help. She happened to be in the Minster in the morning, four hours after the fire, with Derek Phillips, the Minster’s archaeologist.

“My first media encounter that morning was with Yorkshire Television. Standing on top of the rubble, the TV presenter was interviewing senior clergy,” Phillips recalls, “and I overheard someone say: ‘We’ve had to move hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of treasure to safety.’ I blinked, before instinct kicked in to intervene, pointing out to the presenter that things were bad enough already without attracting thieves to the Minster courtesy of an evening television news broadcast. To his eternal credit, he listened.”

This swift and decisive action marked what was to turn out to be the beginning of Margaret’s permanent role at York Minster, becoming its first official press liaison. Over the following four years she adeptly navigated the PR aftermath of one of the most severe cathedral fires in modern history, learning invaluable lessons along the way:

📖 Set a framework: Establish clear guidelines for media engagement. By informing the press of the protocols, including scheduled interview times, a cooperative and effective relationship between media and PR can be achieved.

🤝 Prioritise your client: The needs of the client come before those of the media. This principle ensures that the client’s interests are always protected.

🚫 Be firm: Do not hesitate to say no when necessary. Establishing boundaries is crucial for maintaining control during a crisis.

👁️ Consider wider context: In any crisis, there are numerous influential factors that need to be considered. The ability to think laterally and anticipate these factors is critical. 

🗣️ Tell the truth: Transparency is essential. Not only for maintaining trust with the media, but also for ensuring accurate information reaches the public and prevents misinformation. 

Follow for Part 2 in this series, where we’ll look at the four-year restoration period and the role PR played in educating the next generation. 

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