|Profile: Diabetes UK's Louise Ansari|
|Thursday, 26 July 2012 21:52|
In Good Health
The comms director of Diabetes UK has quite a task on her hands: getting a disease beset by misconception and prejudice to the front of the public and political agenda. Jenni Marsh profiles Louise Ansari
Louise Ansari is trying to convince me that she landed her role as director of communications at Diabetes UK by accident, but I’m not convinced. Can a woman with such an illustrious CV, who was formerly charged with communicating to 800 million people in 47 countries at the Council of Europe, on everything from democracy to the death penalty, make career decisions so lightly?
“Honestly,” she says, “the job just sort of came to me. When I came back from Madrid, where I’d been the director of communications at the British Embassy, I had decided to take a break.” After a slot staying with friends in Buenos Aires, she returned to London and - after several foreign postings - was itching to get back into the UK comms scene. “After working abroad I realised just how cutting edge comms is in Britain. The British public are so sophisticated in the way they take on comms messages and we have a real history of effective PR campaigns, from the AIDs tombstone to seatbelt awareness. I wanted to be part of that again.”
While she was scoping the landscape for the right challenge, Ansari accepted a consultant position with Diabetes UK. She applied from the part-time role for the permanent position of director of communications when the incumbent left, and got the job.
That was in November last year. Today she manages a team of 40 communicators divided into departments that epitomise the diversity of her role. There is a media team, a digital group, a publishing hub, a marketing division, and an insight and research manager who is tasked with using evidence-based measures to ensure the work Ansari’s department does reaches its audience.
“I’m fascinated by health issues and communicating with people about them,” says Louise. “And when I joined Diabetes UK, Baroness Young of Old Scone – our chief executive and my boss – was very clear that the board of trustees felt diabetes didn’t have the right profile or understanding among the general population. There was a view that it was a mild condition, and it wasn’t high enough on the political agenda.”
Ansari’s task was to make the public and politicians alike aware that diabetes affects 3.7 million people each year, accounting for 10% of the NHS budget; that it is responsible for 24,000 early deaths each year; that it is the biggest cause of lower-limb amputations in the UK; and that there is still a large diabetes-blindness incidence rate. With greater awareness, many of these problems could be avoided.
Diabetes UK is a historic charity, dating back to 1934 when writer HG Wells and his friend Dr. RD Lawrence founded The Diabetic Association. Despite such a long tradition, Ansari was given licence to rebuild the brand and overhaul its image. “My brief was to make the organisation tougher and stronger – an organisation that gets the message clear in the minds of stakeholders and opinion formers who can change policy,” she says.
The first casualty of the rethink was the brand logo. “Our old brand was symbolised by a hummingbird, which was very stylised and abstract. People had no idea it was a bird, less that it was a hummingbird to represent balance!” The hummingbird flew the nest and a simple strapline replaced it: ‘care, connect, campaign’.
That was the semantics; next came the action. A big part of Ansari’s brief was to evolve the charity from a support system to a campaigning body. After working alongside parliamentarian Herman Ouseley – now Baron Ouseley, whom Ansari has credited publically as her mentor – at the Commission for Racial Equality on the widely-respected Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football Campaign, which won her the PR Week Young PR Professional of the Year Award in 1994, Ansari is no stranger to lobbying political opinion. In fact, she quite likes it.
Her first target was a National Audit Office report on the treatment of adults with diabetes on the NHS. Rather than assuming a reactionary position after the report’s publication, the comms teams at Diabetes UK issued their own State of the Nation report, in which they published a huge amount of detail on variations in care across the UK.
The weeks that followed were a constant blur of briefings and meetings to lobby politicians and health journalists, ensuring their publication got column inches. “We did everything from old fashioned letter writing to MPs at the House of Commons to press releases, and built up a real head of steam so when the NAO report came out people were thinking about this issue.”
Miranda Watson, an associate at Campaign Train, worked with Ansari at the Which? press office in 2002, and is unsurprised her old colleague has made such a success of her first role in the charity sector in a relatively short space of time. Watson remembers: “Louise had that killer combination of intelligent strategic thinking and creative flair. And she was renowned for her strong relationships with the media. Even at the beginning of her career she was able to turn dry, technical subjects into engaging campaigns that grabbed the headlines and captured the public’s imagination.”
Ansari is clearly a consummate communicator by nature. She studied English Literature at the University of Exeter in the mid-80s, speaks French and Spanish and tells me that “an elegant use of language is a joy for people – it hurts my ears when people don’t communicate like that”. What is all the more heartening about Ansari is that rather than heading for the big pay packets of the City, she has used her flair for communicating to help people. From her time at Lambeth Council – the area in London where she still lives – dealing with domestic issues such as parking (“the bane of my life”) to libraries and regeneration, to her very prestigious stint at the Council of Europe rubbing shoulders with the continent’s most prominent politicians and policy shapers between 2006 and 2008. “I’m wary of sounding holier than thou,” she says, laughing, “but I think it’s fantastic to be able to make a difference to people’s lives and make them happier or healthier, working towards a better society that cares for itself.”
Philanthropy is certainly the thread that links moves from organisations such as the Foods Standards Agency, to a government embassy in Spain, to a diabetes charity. What is it about this particular role that will push Ansari to grow professionally?
“The big challenge with this role – and it’s a fascinating one – is that we don’t have a single group that we need to represent. There are 3.7 million people with diabetes, but the disease affects them all in utterly different ways. What’s more, people don’t often realise but there is a gulf between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
“Some of our messages will affect all of our audience, such as getting better care for diabetes patients across the UK. But when we’re trying to convey healthy eating messages, say, we need to have a very different approach with children than to elderly members of our audience. It’s incredibly stimulating and not at all easy.”
One new channel of communicating that Ansari is utilising now, but wasn’t available to her five years ago, is social networking. There is a dedicated team manning Diabetes UK’s Twitter and Facebook pages and, she says, it is doing so with great success. The organisation has 39,000 Facebook friends and 20,000 Twitter followers. While impressive, the charity still lags behind the ubiquitous Cancer Research UK, which has 42,128 Twitter followers. You sometimes feel part of Ansari’s ambition is to take Diabetes UK – the biggest charity for this condition with a turnover of £30 million and more than 170,000 members – to the level of Cancer Research, without detracting from it. “There are more people in the UK affected by diabetes than all the cancers put together,” she tells me, “and diabetes is not a mild condition.”
While the levels of friends and followers are respectable but not astronomical, the level of engagement is unusually high. “They aren’t clicking “like” and never talking to us again,” says Ansari. “One of the things we know about our audiences is they need support – diabetes never lets up. I’ve learned an enormous amount about that in the past year. I don’t have diabetes but I’ve really tried to get my head around what it is like to live with that condition.
“You can never forget about it. No matter what you are doing, a diabetes sufferer is always aware of what they need to do to manage their condition, or their child’s condition if they are the carer. So it is essential that we facilitate support using social media. It’s a wonderful thing actually. Suddenly an organisation of 300 people can reach out to three million people instantly. It makes a big difference to their lives.”
As well as lobbying politicians, manning social networks and rebranding a historic charity, Ansari is also challenged with debunking the many diabetes myths. Part of the problem arises from the fact there are two main variations of the condition – Type 1 and Type 2. Our weight-conscious culture, she says, has honed in on the fact Type 2 diabetes can be triggered by overeating, a paranoia of modern society.
Consequently, the stereotype most people have of diabetes is an overweight overeater, who has sugar-overdosed themself into a disease, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Being overweight or obese are risk factors, but there are others such as being from an ethnic minority and your waist size. People with larger waists are more prone to diabetes simply because of the type of fat we store there. It’s not just lifestyle choices.
“Age and propensity are clearly risk factors, but the media are getting better at conveying clearly what the realities of diabetes are and getting the message out there that it can be managed properly.”
Talking to Ansari, I’m left feeling a bit exhausted. Not because she seems harried, she’s actually the epitome of cool. But because she’s taken on a role that requires her to wear an awful lot of hats and getting the job right will affect the health and well-being of millions of lives.
It’s a bit like being the communications GP to the nation, I propose?
Ansari laughs: “I just feel extremely privileged. I’ve been given some fascinating jobs with extraordinary briefs throughout my career. If I can make a difference to people’s lives then I go home a very happy woman.”