After returning from a trip to South Africa that was extended because of the volcanic ash currently affecting air travel, Catherine Cullen is enthusing about ten nights of Teenage Cancer Trust concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, which ran this March. These culminated in a top-secret teaming of The Who with Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder.
'Despite best efforts by the team to get permission to leak the story or place it with a media partner, we were under strict instructions not to tell a soul. I arrived onsite on the day to find a dressing room labelled "Eddie Vedder",' smiles Cullen.
'It was quickly changed to "The Godfather" - the character he played in the show.'
But while meeting rock stars such as the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl is a highlight, she says meeting teenage cancer sufferers is what moves her the most. 'There was a guy called Jack who found out he had a tumour the size of a house brick,' says Cullen. 'He came on the stage and said a few words. Afterwards, he said "thank you for letting me do that". The glamorous events are nothing compared to that - it's heartbreaking.'
The concerts, now in their tenth year, are perhaps the most visible element of the Teenage Cancer Trust's increasingly high-profile efforts to improve the treatment of teenage cancer sufferers. This year, the charity celebrates its 20th anniversary. Cullen bashfully says she wants it to be seen as 'the Topshop of charities'.
Cullen, 35, a voluntary sector stalwart with a laid-back attitude, has developed a reputation for building huge campaigns designed to maximise the use of all comms channels, most notably as media relations co-ordinator for the record-breaking Make Poverty History campaign. 'I took a call from the Dalai Lama's office,' she recalls. 'They said "he would like to write a letter of support - would you like to use it?". That was pretty crazy. We held a press conference and Annie Lennox read it out.'
Having studied psychology at Leeds University, Cullen 'fell into PR and charity work' and admits to having looked outside the voluntary sector at times - most notably she was once interviewed to handle comms at MSN. But she plans to stay charity-side because of the sector's 'diversity'.
'I'm told I'm very calm. I'm very organised and I don't feel the need to shout at anyone,' says Cullen, as she ponders what it is that makes her different. 'I find it more effective to give the staff a death stare.'
Death stare aside, she enthuses a lot: about her current role, and her previous jobs at Cancer Research UK and Make Poverty History, despite many of these being short-term contracts. She explains that she would 'rather do a brilliant job for a few months than have a permanent job to which I'm not committed'.
The Duke of Edinburgh's Award director of fundraising Rachel Roxburgh remembers Cullen from her days at Cancer Research UK and recalls the passion she brought to the role, along with her ability to look at things differently.
'My recollection was that she always liked to look at things from left-field,' says Roxburgh. 'She didn't take the direct route. In the charity sector, it is always important to make what you are saying different to what everyone else is talking about.'
Cullen admits that it is a troubling time for the voluntary sector.
'I believe people are questioning where their money is going and want to see tangible results,' she says. 'Reputation is going to be a big issue. Trust in charities is currently quite high, but a couple of mistakes and that will go.'
Following the Royal Albert Hall shows, Teenage Cancer Trust's next campaign was 'Rock Your Shades' day held last week (14 May), which saw young people around the UK wearing their sunglasses all day to further the charity's public recognition.
Also on the agenda is the first mass awareness-raising campaign, called The Big Name Drop, while another is in development and will be aimed at influencing local spending on services for young people with cancer.
Teenage Cancer Trust's mission is to build treatment units designed specifically for teenagers, rather than children's wards with Postman Pat wallpaper or adult wards that may be filled with elderly patients. The charity has so far built 16 units and will have another 20 by the end of this year.
'The teenagers are so positive at the units - it can be quite moving. There are a lot of young people with no hair and you say to yourself, "oh, my god". But the last thing they want you to do is get upset. We lose young people we work with all the time - it is part of what we do. But for everyone that passes away, there's one that lives.'
CATHERINE CULLEN'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
Getting the job at the Chelsea Flower Show. That set everything else in motion. Most of my job changes have been perfectly timed.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
Fiona Burles, who was head of marketing at RNIB. She came from the drinks industry. I took the job because I wanted to work with her. She had a very different approach - she was very commercial.
Also, Fiona Hazell, who is director of marketing and comms at Breakthrough Breast Cancer. It was my first management role and she taught me a lot about how to develop a team.
- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Ambition plays its part, but take your time and make the most of the experience you are getting now. Learn as much as you can, seek out new opportunities and move on when you are unable to develop further or are not passionate about your job any more. Enjoying and being proud of what you do goes a long way.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Excitement about the job. They should also bring something new to the dynamic.
2008: Director of comms, Teenage Cancer Trust
2008: Strategic PR manager, RNIB
2006: Comms manager, Refuge
2006: Comms manager, The Prince's Trust
2005: Media relations co-ordinator, Make Poverty History
2003: Media relations manager, Breakthrough Breast Cancer
2002: Media officer, Comic Relief
1999: Senior national events executive, Cancer Research UK
1998: Press officer, Royal Horticultural Society