Interview: Victoria Chester

The chief executive of Plantlife talks to Jenna Pudelek about how the charity was able to use her appearance on The Great British Bake Off TV show to boost its profile

Victoria Chester
Victoria Chester

Cosy cookery show The Great British Bake Off has proved a surprise hit for BBC2, with audience figures regularly topping 4.5 million.

One of the 12 amateur bakers to star in this year's series, Victoria Chester, chief executive of Plantlife, has been using her 15 minutes of fame to highlight the work of the conservation charity.

The BBC's strict impartiality rules prevented her mentioning the charity on air, but the programme's popularity has thrust her into the spotlight and proved a boost to the charity's communications work.

It was Chester's decision to compete in the show, spurred on by a lifelong love of baking, but Plantlife says it actively promoted her appearances on its website, through social media and to the press.

"Our publicity manager informed editors that I'd be on the show and offered them interviews and photo opportunities," she says. "She also put up recipes on our social networks."

There was little debate in the office about whether to take advantage of Chester's appearance on such a popular and uncontroversial show. The result has been a higher profile for both Chester and Plantlife through features in glossy magazines, radio and local press interviews.

In the first show, she was voted 'star baker', wowing the judges with a cake shaped like a pie with blackbirds bursting out of it. However, she was voted out in the third episode after her tarts failed to impress.

She is now something of a local celebrity in Salisbury, where the charity is based - she is stopped in the street and has opened local events.

"We've seen a huge amount of activity on Plantlife's web pages," Chester says.

As a result of the show, 50 people have signed up to the charity's blog and more than 100 entered a prize draw at the National Bird Fair to win a cookery book based on the series.

"We now have new names and details of people interested in what we are doing," Chester says. "There has also been a lot of interest in the local press and county magazines.

"I can handle people coming up to me in the street if it gives me a chance to talk about Plantlife and how to keep colour in the countryside."

As a fan of the first two series and a keen home baker, Chester says she made a spur of the moment, late-night decision to apply online, not thinking she'd actually be one of the contestants chosen from 7,000 applicants. "I've been baking ever since I got a Winnie the Pooh cook book when I was 10," she says. "It's how I relax after work."

Plantlife, which works throughout the UK to protect wild plants, communicates through its own magazine, e-newsletter, website and social media, and holds an annual members day. Potential supporters can be reached through its partnership working - for example, in the Nature of Farm Awards with the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation - and attending country shows.

Plantlife, which in 2011/12 had an income of £2.8m, is funded by a mixture of grants, applications to charitable trusts, membership, appeals, legacies, investment income, donations and corporate sponsorships.

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