Profile: Marc Silverside, head of comms at Macmillan Cancer Support

As Macmillan Cancer Support turns 100, the charity's head of comms tells Matt Cartmell how campaigning has become his focus.

Busting Cancer myths: Marc Silverside
Busting Cancer myths: Marc Silverside

[Pic: Belinda Lawley]

Seated with a cappuccino in a cafe near Macmillan's Vauxhall offices, Marc Silverside leans back with a satisfied air. 'People think we're the best part of the NHS,' he smiles with just a hint of smugness. 'Some people don't realise that we're a charity.'

It is fair to say he can hardly believe his luck. It has been seven years since leaving Transport for London to initially take on the charity's internal comms. In that time, 43-year-old Silverside has helped transform Macmillan into one of the most popular charity brands in the UK - something to celebrate during its centenary this year.

'I thought I would like to do this because I have seen family and friends struggle with cancer. It was a very personal motive,' says Silverside.

But when his job expanded three years ago into his current head of comms role, Silverside was given the task of setting up a new team. This involved linking up the disparate press team, strategic comms, celebrity endorsement, employee relations, corporate partnership and events functions into one, 24-strong cohesive unit.

Macmillan PR and media manager Anna Brosnan has worked with Silverside both in her current job and at TfL: 'Marc has an opendoor policy and is great for sounding out ideas. He offers useful insight into cross-organisational activity, while driving innovation across Macmillan's comms.'

Brosnan also recalls Silverside's willingness to don green lycra to do the London Triathlon for Macmillan.

A major part of Macmillan's transformation has been turning it into a modern campaigning charity, including providing expert commentary to the media on cancer care issues. 'Campaigning has become a big part of what we do,' he says. 'Macmillan was never a campaigning charity before.'

The charity went through a rebrand in 2006 which, Silverside explains, 'was not just about the look and feel, it was about what we're here to do'. He adds: 'Now Macmillan is really out there. It has really got it right.'

Silverside has an air of composed passion for his work - while seemingly a pragmatist, he gives himself away with the occasional determined smile.

The reward for his hard work came in 2009, when Macmillan was named that year's top charity brand in PRWeek's Charity Brand Index. In last year's index, Macmillan came a very respectable fourth.

'It's about trying to change people's perceptions that cancer is an end of life thing,' says Silverside, in an attempt to sum up the charity's comms objectives. 'Because people are being diagnosed earlier with cancer, we are also trying to encourage people to get involved, make sure fundraising services are visible and that people understand what we're here to do.

'Correcting misconceptions is also important. Some people believe if you've got cancer, you die. In fact, if you get cancer it's a really complex journey and you can live for 20 or more years.'

Another focus for Silverside was to bring cancer out from under the proverbial carpet, which led to the development of the now-established Cancer Talk Week, which this year takes place from 15-25 February. 'We started it a few years ago to get people talking about cancer. It's a general problem that you can get fluffy stories in the press about people making miracle recoveries, but that's not the reality for most patients. A lot have long-term problems - there are thousands of people suffering.'

Perhaps the most important milestone in 2011 is Macmillan's centenary, and Silverside says a lot of thought has to go into how this sensitive subject should be hand-led: 'We looked into whether the centenary message worked for our various audiences and what we wanted to say to each of them, and how they might become involved.

'However, we were not sure how people affected by cancer would respond, so we tested it. They told us that they are living in the "now" and that the past, while interesting, clouded the information they wanted and that future messages had the potential to depress people.'

With this in mind, Silverside says it is very unlikely that Macmillan will target those directly affected by cancer with the centenary story. Instead, the main focus is the media, to raise public awareness of Macmillan and to help with fundraising.

'We ended up with multiple messages for a variety of audiences including our committees, supporters, professionals, cancer voices and so on,' he explains.

'We know we are going to be raising one million pounds,' he says of the celebrations. 'It should be a lot more than that.'

He finally beams the smile of a man who knows he is doing something that really matters.

CV

2008: Head of comms, Macmillan Cancer Support

2004: Head of internal comms, Macmillan Cancer Support

2002: Head of comms, surface transport, Transport for London

1999: Principal comms officer, social and community services, Westminster City Council

1996: Comms officer, housing, Westminster City Council

1994: Executive officer, lobbying and London issues, Westminster City Council

1992: Housing officer, Westminster City Council

MARC SILVERSIDE'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

Becoming PR manager at Transport for London was a great step. Moving to Macmillan was a great opportunity to learn about a new sector.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have been very lucky with great colleagues to learn from. Peter Hendy, now Transport Commissioner at TfL, was no-nonsense and super pragmatic, which is something I have tried to replicate. My current job-share directors Lynda Thomas and Hilary Cross give a unique double perspective, while Robert Gibson, at Partners in Development, taught me to trust my own instincts.

What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?

Internships and volunteering are incredibly successful at Macmillan and are an approach that everyone should consider. Good people who are driven and focused will always succeed, but you need to take your own personal development seriously.

What do you prize in new recruits?

I look for people who are emotionally intelligent, open, confident, creative and want to learn. It's important that they are fun, yet professional and know how to get that balance right.

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