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Christmas lights, warning bells

It would appear the illuminated Christmas trail at the National Trust’s Killerton House is making a lot of people hot under the collar.

Following posting my picture of Killerton House beautifully lit-up for Christmas on LinkedIn, I was sent a link to a Devonlive story about the (circa) 1000 comments on Killerton’s own Facebook page complaining about the price of visiting the trail.

National Trust members appear to be particularly upset that they are also being asked to pay full price, even though they continued paying their annual membership throughout the pandemic, loyally supporting the Trust when all properties were closed.

Unfortunately for the Trust, others have taken the opportunity to weigh-in, questioning and criticising other decisions made by the Trust in recent years, and further denting its reputation. Some people have even suggested visiting alternative venues nearby, offering the same experience but cheaper!

Like many charities, the Trust has been hit hard by the pandemic and has had to make some tough calls on staffing levels over the last year. It clearly needs to generate more income – and an illuminated trail at Christmas, run successfully at other sites, would, on the face of it, seem like a good idea.

The marketing of the illuminated Christmas trail began in July – the hottest day of the year. I recall thinking that it was a strange time to start the Facebook publicity campaign. Indeed, the Facebook comments should have sounded some warning bells. Among the comments and laughing emojis about marketing a Christmas event during the school summer holidays, was plenty of criticism about the price. Loyal members deserved to be heard.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had the Trust listened a little more carefully back in July, it may not have walked into the current round of Facebook and media criticism, just as the trail opens. Instead, it has ploughed on regardless, repeatedly issuing the same weak statement, stoking further hostile criticism and providing local media with great content for an emotive news story. The first rule of reputation management is that you can’t talk your way out of something you’ve behaved your way into.

Several decades ago, when newspapers ruled the world, there used to be a saying that bad news would be tomorrows fish ‘n’ chip paper. However, in today’s digital world, that’s no longer the case. Bad news forms part of your digital legacy and will be dragged-up for years to come when someone Googles you.

For that reason alone, the Trust would have done well to listen to their members and consider whether a solution could be found. This would have, almost certainly, prevented the negative comments on social media that have, in turn, contributed to a “trending” local news story.