Published: 10 February 2009

Lots of charities are risk-averse

SANE Chief Executive Marjorie Wallace shares her experiences of being a high-profile charity communicator.

How have you established yourself as a key mental health spokesperson?

We have done this by providing the media with material that lends them credibility. They turn to us knowing that the material we give them is going to be up-to-date, valid and it’ll have the right messages for their purposes as well as ours. They can rely on us to enhance their news items, to explain complex issues and protect them from making mistakes.

What successful comms campaigns have you been involved in with SANE?

The most important was “The Forgotten Illness” campaign which ran in The Times and The Sunday Times and led to the establishment of SANE in 1986. We had a campaign in the Daily Mail about the failures of care in the community. Then there was the Frank Bruno anti-stigma campaign in The Sun when they had the “Bonkers Bruno” headline. We challenged Sun editor Rebekah Wade to withdraw the headline. She offered us space to say what it should have been and they ran a campaign for SANE that raised £30,000. We gave Wade and actor Ross Kemp one day’s training on our helpline. He passed with flying colours but she agreed she did not have the patience.

As a charity communicator, what lessons have you learnt from working with the media?

It’s important to work with all the newspapers and television – national, international and regional. Working with the media is about taking risks but a lot of charities are risk-averse. If I’m asked to write a piece for the Mail, for example, they may change what I say, use a damaging headline or it even might get spiked. That’s the gamble.

You have to be prepared to take flak and criticism when your ideas may not be fashionable and you’ve got to say what you believe in and have a very pure vision. Don’t talk in politically correct jargon. A lot of people like to use euphemisms. For instance I don’t like using the phrase “people with mental health issues” or “mental wellbeing” when one really means mental illness to describe someone who is so distressed or depressed they can’t get out of bed in the morning.

You've introduced SANEmail, an email support service, recently. How important is new media in communicating with young people with mental health needs?

It’s extremely important to use new media. Three years ago we had 40,000 unique visitors a month to our website, now we have 360,000. It’s gone up because of our profile in the media. People are turning more and more to the web for information. We are due to extend our use of MySpace and Facebook to promote our services and we also run a discussion board which has 155,000 visitors a month. We employ a person to monitor the discussion board which is important because people can post anything they want and it may actually do harm as well as good.

SANE has received lots of celebrity support. How does this raise the profile of the charity?

We’ve got 40 vice patrons who lend their name to SANE. These include Dame Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin. We live in a celebrity hungry age and without a celebrity endorsement it’s hard to make an impact, particularly with young people. Fortunately because I’ve been in the media a lot, I have quite a network of contacts. But charity communicators simply have to approach celebrities and risk rejection.

What advice could you offer other charity communication professionals?

There’s no quick fix. Nothing comes easily. You have to work extremely hard to get coverage, branding or any messages across. It takes a lot of grit and very little glamour. You have to be available 24/7. I’ve kept my mobile on for the last 20 years so that when the media need us, we’re available.

You have to be infinitely patient and treat a local newspaper with the same respect as a major national. People may never have heard about what you do and you have to be able to explain it to them with enthusiasm like you’ve never said it before. You’ve got to always be fresh and excited yourself. Your role is to convey concise, vivid images which resonate with the general public and give a voice to those you are seeking to help.


Marjorie Wallace, chief executive, Sane

In 1986 campaigning journalist Marjorie Wallace established mental health charity SANE after writing a series of investigative articles on the neglect of mentally ill people, both in hospital and the community.