Messaging Historic Preservation

By Germonique Ulmer posted 02-03-2017 15:45


Each of us tells a personal story about what draws us to the work of saving places. For my part, I often talk about two things: my family’s connection to the historic town of Eatonville, Florida, and my passion for ensuring that communities of color are fully represented in both our collective narrative and the historic places our country holds dear. Personal stories like these draw people in and are the starting places for commonality. So too for organizations.

At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we knew that we had an important story to tell and that we hadn’t always articulated it very well to our key audiences. And so we embarked on a journey of expressing our organizational purpose and bringing it to life for a broader audience.

Like many organizations, the National Trust’s messaging mostly tracked in one direction: It focused on what we do, rather than why we do it. We knew it was time to work on explaining the “why” to clarify how our organization creates value in the world and motivates people to join the preservation movement, act on its behalf, and give to this cause. It’s in the “why” that we and our allies find hope and our audiences find inspiration and common ground.

HOPE Crew volunteers working on a preservation project at the Woodlawn Plantation. | Credit: John Boal

To explain why we save places in a concise and compelling way, we had a lot of material to sift through. We work on a range of issues, from tax credit policy to place-based advocacy campaigns to technical assistance and training. Compounding matters,  the National Trust is routinely mistaken for the National Register for Historic Places. Furthermore, the word “preservation” and our formal organizational name—when people hear “National Trust,” they tend to think of banks—haven’t necessarily served us well. Rather, they tend to create the impression that we prefer to keep old places trapped in amber, when what we really work toward is reusing old places to make communities vibrant.

Despite these challenges, brainstorming key concepts that capture the essence of the brand we wanted to project was not difficult because we know what is important to us and this organization. It greatly helped that my colleague, Tom Mayes, had recently spent six months at the American Academy in Rome on a tour of discovery about why old places matter and was among the National Trust staff who worked to identify these concepts. While our efforts to focus our messaging remain a work in progress, our revised purpose statement has laid the foundation for messaging about preservation with renewed conviction.

We also wanted to bring our story from places to people. By focusing on the impact our work has on people’s lives we can highlight preservation’s relevance in a world with so much noise to cut through. Examples include talking about the personal impact our Hands On Preservation Experience (H.O.P.E.) Crew program has had and messaging about our ReUrbanism work to highlight the specific character and opportunities that old places create for vibrant and sustainable communities.

Most recently, we have found it helpful to have simple yet compelling core messages that explain why saving places matters:

  • Because old places create beauty, character, opportunity, and community, making the places we live places we love;
  • Because there is no more powerful way to learn about who we are and where we are headed than from the very places where history happened;
  • Because they remind us of our journey as a people and a nation—from our proudest moments to the wounds we are still working to heal—and inspire us to build an even greater tomorrow;
  • Because saving places is the ultimate form of recycling—the greenest building is the one that is already built; and
  • Because old places are where our lives, memories, and stories began, connecting us then, now, and into the future.

As a visual rallying cry for why our work is so critical, we recently created an anthem video. It has already proven to be an enormously useful tool for widespread public communications about why we save old places—without ever using the word “preservation.” It also serves as a model for compelling storytelling.

Going forward, we are encouraging our colleagues to find the message that resonates with them, make it their own, and build a story around it. Preservation organizations must make a clear, compassionate, and human case for what we do. Although we aren’t saving lives per se, there is deep and compelling value in saving places that embody our collective memories. Historic preservation transforms people’s lives for the better. We should tell that story.

Germonique R. Ulmer is the vice president for public affairs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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