Joe Twilley, head of communications

Joe Twilley, head of communications

Joe Twilley is Head of Communications at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. We worked together for several years, when Amazon PR was contracted to handle media relations for Holocaust Memorial Day. Joe will soon be leaving the Trust and relocating to Birmingham to take up the role of Head of Communications at Birmingham City University. We caught up before he begins the next chapter in his career.


The past informs the future


Louise: Holocaust Memorial Day has grown in significance since we first worked on it in 2013 – there is increased awareness and many more people take part in events and activities. But sadly, there also seems to be a more compelling need for society to recognise where unchecked discrimination and hate can lead. What role do you think acts of remembrance can have in changing attitudes and behaviours in the present day?


Joe: Yes, unfortunately you’re right. We’re really concerned at the amount of hostility, prejudice and hate we see online – and in the real world too. For me, and all of us at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), remembrance isn’t a passive thing we do once a year. We need to remember with a purpose, to help build a more respectful, safer world.


Ultimately it’s all about taking the time to learn about those who experienced persecution to inform our own lives today. So many people who mark Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) go on to take really meaningful action, like volunteering at refugee centres or getting involved in inter-faith work locally.


“All of these actions make a massive difference to our communities and ultimately society as a whole.”



Holocaust Memorial Day takes place in January and along with a national commemorative event in London there are thousands of events and activities across the country. Back in March, we all assumed lockdown and the impact of Covid-19 wouldn’t last too long. People pushed events back to the autumn. Now they are being postponed to early next year, possibly longer. What decisions, if any, have you made about the 2021 commemorations?


In many ways we were incredibly lucky that we managed to deliver Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 before lockdown came in. It was a huge year for us as we marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge joined us at the national Ceremony in London (which you can watch on BBC iPlayer).


With our attention now firmly on January 2021, we’re working hard to make sure that people from across the UK can still take part – even if social distancing and other public health measures remain. One challenge we’ve been considering is how do we enable people to still actively participate together when gathering in large groups is impossible. We’re creating resources and activities which people can do digitally, or from a distance, but still actively participate.


In terms of the UK Ceremony, we’re having to work very flexibly, but it’s clear that digital accessibility is going to be more important than ever. We’re developing plans which will enable people to take part and view it online, which is particularly important given that many of our most important guests are survivors of the Holocaust and genocide who may still be shielding.


Of course, the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is not just about the commemorations each January. That forms a focal point, but you work throughout the year to fulfil your vision – to learn lessons from the past to create a safer, better future. Can you tell us what this involves?


Really it’s about helping people to understand the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution of other groups, and more recent genocides. None of the events we mark are ancient history. They all took place in living memory and each one holds valuable lessons for us all to comprehend. We need to understand where hostility and hate can lead if it’s left unchecked.


The tricky part is not making crass comparisons with historic situations. We should be thankful that we live in a democracy, with a generally very tolerant society and where laws protect people from hate crime and discrimination. But that doesn’t mean our work in the UK is done. Far from it. Antisemitism, homophobia, anti-Muslim hate, disability hate and many other forms of intolerance are all far too prevalent and it’s our collective responsibility to stand up to them.


From a comms perspective, our work throughout the year involves highlighting other anniversaries (we just marked Roma Genocide Remembrance Day on 2 August), commenting on relevant news stories and sharing our perspective through spokespeople and experts. Recently we’ve also been doing lots of work to highlight the dreadful treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China.


In a complex and troubled world, what gives you most hope for the future?


People. One of the best parts of my job is meeting and working with remarkable individuals who constantly strive to make the world a better place. Survivors, volunteers, community activists, fellow charity workers – they’re all out there doing amazing work which is making a difference. Unfortunately, their voices often aren’t the loudest (particularly on social media) which is why I think communications work is more vital than ever before to give positivity a platform.

The end of an era


You’ve been at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for five years. What has prompted you to leave now? I’m interested to know whether lockdown has played a role? Certainly for some people it has been a time to reflect, and perhaps hit the ‘reset’ button.


Yes, after five amazing years it’s coming to an end! I felt that it was time for me to move on to a new challenge, particularly after the amazing year we’ve just had for HMD 2020, but lockdown and the pandemic has been a factor.


I’m moving on to become Head of Communications at Birmingham City University – an amazing opportunity to contribute to their inclusive approach to higher education.


Although I always thought I’d move back to the Midlands (I’m originally from Wolverhampton), lockdown has definitely helped speed this along. I’d like to be a little closer to family and I really want a proper garden! It might sound like a cliché, but lockdown has renewed my appreciation of the natural world and the need to be close to green space.


You are leaving a truly exceptional team. I have the utmost respect for everyone at the Trust – I think their understanding, sensitivity, dedication and commitment are an inspiration. What will you miss most when you leave your colleagues?


They’re the best team! And thank you for being so kind about HMDT.


It’s actually that same spirit of kindness that I’ll miss most. Our successes really stem from a mutual respect and understanding for each other and our skills. We’re a small team of around fifteen staff members but I think we punch well above our weight in terms of impact.


I think some people have a perception that HMDT might be a really sad place to work, and there are elements of that, but ultimately the team are energised by the work we do and spur each other on. From bake offs to team sports days, Easter egg hunts to recent Zoom quizzes, we do everything we can to support one another – which I think is vital given the subject matter we deal with.


What has been the Trust’s greatest achievement during your time there? And your own proudest moment?


For me I’d say that growing HMD to the point where it’s a nationally recognised and important day has been the ultimate success for the organisation. When I started back in 2015 there were 3,600 local activities, but this year we recorded more than 17,000! HMD is firmly in the national conscience and here to stay. From the highest levels of government to grassroots community groups, people understand our mission to learn from genocide – for a better future.


“On a personal level, I was immensely proud to see the UK Ceremony for HMD 2020 come together after nearly two years of planning.”


I was sat out the back in our media room, but when I watched 75 candles lit by survivors, volunteers and faith leaders it sent shivers up my spine. I went straight from there to greet TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and introduce them to remarkable survivors of the Holocaust and genocide, which was so special. But I’m proud of so many different things (our HMD emoji on Twitter, the impactful media coverage, the partnerships we’ve strengthened with sister organisations) – that’s the joy of having such a broad role.


Recruitment for your role is underway. What would you say to the person stepping into your shoes? What are the best (and the most challenging) aspects of the job?


I’d say first of all that you’re joining a creative, talented and kind team who will work with you and support you. From day one you’ll realise that they’re a special bunch of people who are ready to welcome you.


The best bit of the job is also the most challenging bit: the variety of the role. It will keep you constantly on your toes, working across all media work, digital, brand, political engagement, creative support and more, but that’s why it’s such a dream job.

A new chapter


You aren’t just taking on a new job, you are relocating to a different part of the country – and during a highly uncertain time. How are you feeling? Are you someone who relishes change?


I’m going back to the West Midlands – my neck of the woods! Birmingham is a fantastic city and has transformed in the past few years, so I’m relishing the chance to explore and meet new people there.


My next challenge as Head of Communications for Birmingham City University is really exciting and I was specifically drawn to the strong set of values that the university has. It’s going to be a challenge though, particularly as my start coincides with the beginning of a new academic year like no other.


That excitement is mixed with some uncertainty. It’ll be a completely new experience to join a team which, at least to start with, I probably won’t meet face to face. Not being able to go for lunch, coffee or drinks with new colleagues will be a new experience for me, but lockdown has forced me to work in new ways and I think we’re all now feeling more confident using digital tools that perhaps we didn’t before.


I’m sure the team would want to give you a big send-off, but presumably you won’t be able to have a leaving do! What plans do you have instead, to mark the end of this chapter in your career?


Good question – let me check the diary…


I’m hoping to meet up with some people in the park (at a safe distance of course!) and look back on the past five years. If not, then I’m sure you’ll find me on Zoom or Teams for some suitably digital, 2020-style send off!


Interview originally published in August 2020.