Q&A: Comedian Bill Bailey on prostate cancer, PR approaches and Twitter pitfalls

PRWeek got the chance to quiz owl-fancying stand-up Bill Bailey at the launch of Prostate Cancer UK's new Men United campaign, which he fronts.

Bailey, whose father-in-law has prostate cancer, has worked for over a year as a spokesman for the charity, which is one of many he supports.

The ‘Qualmpeddler’ performer and ‘Black Books’ actor’s involvement was saluted as "fantastic" by the charity’s head of PR and media Jane Spence.

Read on for our Q&A with Bailey, or find out how Prostate Cancer UK's director of communications plans to quadruple its supporter base in 12 months

PRWeek: Part of the power you have had for the charity is being a comedian delivering an unexpectedly serious message. Do you think it would be appropriate to mention prostate cancer in your comedy material?

Bill Bailey: I don’t see why it would be inappropriate to mention prostate cancer in a routine. It’s been the source of a lot of comedy routines for years. The examination is almost a comedy cliché. Maybe I would talk about our attitudes to it, that people don’t talk about it, it becomes a bit of a stigma. People talk around cancer.

Has the charity told you you’ve made it easier for men to talk about prostate cancer?

I don’t know. I certainly get it from members of the public I’ve met. I’ll be sitting in a cafe and people come over and just start talking about it. That would never have happened if I hadn’t done this campaign.

What’s the most common question you get asked about it by journalists?

From journalists I get why did I get involved and whether I think you can combine the ideas of sport and comedy with something serious like this. You have to get the balance right. You don’t want to scare people and be too preachy, but neither do you want it to be flippant. I think we’ve got the balance right.

Other than today’s media sessions and the TV ad, what else are you doing to get the message across?

I’m doing a lot of work with the press, a lot of interviews, there’s the ad, I’ll probably get involved with the website. It’s an ongoing campaign.

Is it a long-term thing?

Yeah, I don’t see why not. Once you get involved in a campaign, you know... I’ve educated myself about prostate cancer. Being a man in the age bracket [at risk] it’s good to know these things.

Would you like to see prostate cancer in a soap storyline?

It would be interesting, wouldn’t it? For all the strange ways that soaps deal with issues, they do get people talking. You could have a storyline where someone is diagnosed and the effect it has on the family. It’s one of the most potent ways of getting the subject into people’s living rooms and getting people talking about it.

What’s the single most important thing you’ve done to raise awareness of prostate cancer?

The single most important thing I’ve done to raise awareness is doing these TV ad campaigns. An enormous amount of people have watched [last year’s ad] - all age groups and all backgrounds and that’s the key. It’s trying to take it out of the rather serious and medical fraternity and turning it into something which all men can talk about.

You must get a lot of approaches from PRs, whether from charities or more commercial ventures.

Yeah, I do.

What’s your typical response?

It’s hard, because I get something like 35 to 40 requests per day from charities. I can’t possibly work with them all and I have to work with ones that I have a strong personal connection with or that I feel strongly about. Because otherwise I would spend the whole time doing charity work and I wouldn’t be able to earn a living.

What about on the non-charity side, the big brands trying to sell their products?

I do get those too. And I’m fascinated by that. I never do it. I’ve never done a TV ad for a commercial product. I’m intrigued why people think I would be the thing they would want to sell toothpaste with. I say: "Hmm, that’s very interesting but sorry I’m busy that day." I like getting involved in campaigns like this. It’s not a duty so much as a desire. I’m very privileged to be in the public eye and I want to use that for some good.

Will you be on Twitter promoting the ad today?

Yeah, I’ll probably be across all that, deffo.

What’s your experience of using Twitter?

It’s a very powerful tool these days and you have to be careful how you use it. People abuse it, or people are very careless with it. They just think: "Oh, it’s just Twitter isn’t it?" But it’s not, it’s a lot more serious than that. And you have to be careful. I check every single word, three or four times. No typos, no errors.

Do you get someone to check for you?

No, I do it all myself. I’ve had my account hacked three times.

Who by?

Who knows. Computer programmes, spammers.

Nothing really malicious, no secret enemies from the past?

Ha, no... once I had a bloke pretend to be me for a while when I first got on. That was quite weird. He was @billbailey. It was a fake Bill Bailey, he was talking about going out to do Buzzcocks and pretending to be me. I was horrified and fascinated. The thing that really annoyed me was that he couldn’t spell. That really really bothered me.

Did Twitter give you the account?

In the end I had to out him and say, look, I’m the real Bill Bailey, this bloke is just an imposter. I got an email from him saying: "Oh sorry, I’m just a fan." I thought that’s just weird, why would you pretend to be someone? But seriously, you get people like Sally Bercow tweeting about McAlpine and getting into terrible trouble with it. Now there’s a legal precedent that has been set. It’s libel. So you have to be very careful. It should be informal, but at the same time I triple check the thing, you have to check your facts, your sources. It’s become a bit of a monster because papers will now report what tweets are. It’s a live thing and papers are playing catch-up.

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