Client view: Aisling Burnand, Cancer Research - Learning to live with the coalition

Excited by celebrities and desperate to defend business interests: Cancer Research's public affairs director Aisling Burnand reflects on a year of dealing with the coalition Government.

It is easy to imagine Cancer Research's victorious fight against the tobacco industry, resulting in the banning of cigarette displays in shops, being turned into a film. The lead role of Aisling Burnand, executive director of policy and public affairs at Cancer Research UK, would have to be played in the style of a typical English Rose.

With the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' mantra hanging in her office and her habitual use of the third person, she epitomises British manners, even in the face of adversity. It is certainly difficult to imagine her wheeling and dealing in the bars of Westminster with MPs or engaging in dirty tricks.

Strong reputation

She looks surprised when asked if it ever does get 'dirty' behind the scenes, saying: 'No, no. In the end, we have a particular view. I know different people will use different tactics to influence, but in terms of our organisation, we have a very strong brand, a strong reputation and we base our arguments on evidence.'

While she acknowledges that lobbying over a glass or wine or two after hours goes on, she does not find this is the most effective approach. Besides, she has not got the time: 'I can't spend endless hours sitting in a bar. I've got two young kids. I have to be focused about what I do. And if you're serious about how you influence people, you've got to be a bit more sophisticated. Most MPs don't just want a cosy chat. They want to do something, so you must know what you are going to ask them to do. You can't just go in and chat about who you are.'

The tobacco lobby is a different matter. When fictionalised in film, its protagonists tend to be characterised as duplicitous, conniving baddies. And Burnand believes that they may not present themselves in an entirely transparent manner.

'It is challenging that the tobacco industry comes in many guises. That's not always truly understood. You might know that the person who has just walked into a meeting works for a tobacco company, but they might be representing another group. And we know a lot of research is funded by the tobacco industry. What we have to do is ensure that the people we're talking to recognise that not every lobbyist may be all that they appear to be.'

Campaign timing

But to pit the cancer lobby and the tobacco industry against each other as good versus evil is, naturally, too simplistic. In fact, the tobacco and retail industry had some compelling arguments at their disposal to try to defend their in-store cigarette displays, which meant Cancer Research's 'Out of Sight, Out of Mind' campaign was by no means a done deal.

The fact that a new Government, and a coalition one at that, entered office halfway through the campaign gave the tobacco lobby a particular advantage. Burnand says: 'When it came in, the coalition Government was all about getting us out of the recession, so it didn't want to be seen to do anything that was going to impact on business.

It also came in very strongly on regulatory reform, not wanting to tie business up in more regulation.'

Alternative approaches

To counter this type of opposition, Burnand believes it is increasingly important to present an economic, as well as public health, argument. In this case, the charity pushed the longer-term cost of people being treated for smoking-related cancers. It also addressed the impact on business by researching exactly what happened in Ireland, where the ban was already in place. It found the average cost of covering up displays was only around EUR300 and, anecdotally, found that this cost was borne largely by the tobacco industry.

One knock-on effect of a Government taking over in tough economic times is that campaigners are looking to collaborate more. Burnand is convinced that getting together with other like-minded organisations not only saves money, but creates a more powerful voice. Cancer Research is one of the founder members of the Smokefree Action coalition, which includes more than 100 charities, NHS bodies and businesses. But she cautions that it is imperative to work together wisely.

She explains: 'If a Government gets a conflicting message, they'll just say they're not getting a clear view, and therefore that is a good reason not to do anything. You have to come together with collaborators and be very clear about what you want and why you want it. Sometimes there are subtle points of difference. That's fine. But you've got to be clear about the output.'

She has also seen how the Government takes note of high-profile media campaigns by companies it works with, particularly those featuring celebrities. Cancer Research has used celebrities such as Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts in its anti-sunbeds campaign, and Aisling believes politicians like the visibility these photo shoots give: 'Media coverage is absolutely vital. We can be talking to politicians about an issue and they will nod, but it's almost as if media noise gives the issue validity. The rise of celebrity has happened in public affairs too. Just look at what Joanna Lumley did for the Gurkhas.'

Lobbying tools

MPs also appreciate the 'content' value that celebrity-driven events provide as, more and more, they are tapped into social media, communicating with constituents via Twitter, Facebook and e-newsletters. However, this changing attitude to technology is mainly on the periphery, among younger politicians. Burnand sees UK lobbying as 'still quite conservative'.

Another effective lobbying tool has been 'real life' ambassadors, which resonate strongly with the Conservatives' Big Society agenda. Cancer Research UK has recruited ambassadors across the UK and trained them to put forward their case to MPs. They range from carers to those who have lost a loved one, and cancer sufferers themselves.

'These people are often our best advocates,' says Burnand. 'They really bring the personal side home. Given the coalition's localisation agenda, it's really important for organisations - charities especially - to be thinking about grassroots campaigning. Enabling people to tell their story will carry an awful lot more weight than me going in and talking about it.'

HOW I SEE IT - James Turner, Director, ICM Research

While Cancer Research and Macmillan are the most remembered cancer charities, with over 40 per cent spontaneous recall, there is confusion about the charities' names and purposes.

Cancer Research is known firstly for its cancer cure research, and secondly for education programmes, with Race for Life emerging as a key element, particularly among younger people.

Twenty-seven per cent think that Cancer Research is involved in lobbying the Government, with 38 per cent aware of the tobacco product visibility reduction campaign.


As Aisling Burnard says making your political argument an economic argument reaps rewards. The Government needs to stimulate economic growth and that, in turn, requires private sector job creation. Positioning clients' needs as part of that narrative, demonstrating what their business or organisation can do to help achieve those objectives, secures results.

- Simon Nayyar, Managing Director, Public Policy, Citigate Dewe Rogerson


A current bugbear for Burnand is the lack of a 'joined-up' Government. The fact that communication lines between different Whitehall departments appear to be poor makes her job considerably more challenging: 'There is nothing worse than having one conversation with one official in one area and then talking to someone else and finding that they're not really on the same page. I'm hoping that some of the changes at Number 10 and the new appointments will help to join things up.'

The other issue on which she is hoping to work more effectively with the Government is the implementation of its Big Society idea. In her opinion, the breadth of Cancer Research's activities from research to fundraising 'epitomises' the Big Society.

However, in her eyes, the coalition has been focusing disproportionately on smaller charities: 'It would be nice to see the Government talk to some of the more established charities, because I think we may be able to help them with some substance around the Big Society debate. We have heard that some Government officials are negative towards bigger charities, but they're missing a trick.'

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