Louise Ansari: Making words go further

The director of comms at Diabetes UK has a mission to gain coverage beyond the traditional health and front pages. David Benady reports.

Louise Ansari: 'We want the FT and The Economist to be looking at diabetes in terms of how it affects the economy'
Louise Ansari: 'We want the FT and The Economist to be looking at diabetes in terms of how it affects the economy'

Louise Ansari, director of comms at Diabetes UK, brandishes a recent issue of the Daily Express bearing the front page splash: 'Simple rules to beat diabetes'. She presents this as evidence of how her campaigning approach can garner headlines and change public attitudes.

Since taking charge of media relations at the charity in November, Ansari has courted the nation's health journalists in a crusade to boost coverage of a condition described as 'the Aids of the 21st century'.

The campaign seems to be taking off. Along with coverage in the press, BBC Radio 4's File on Four took up the issue with an expose on the postcode lottery of diabetes care in the NHS.

Ansari is no stranger to public campaigning, having worked alongside Herman Ouseley -now Baron Ouseley - at the Commission for Racial Equality to launch the Let's Kick Racism Out of Football campaign in the early 90s. This earned her the PRWeek Young PR Professional of the Year Award in 1994.

She says recent events - two allegations of racial abuse by top-flight footballers on the pitch - show how racism in the game is still prevalent 20 years later, but is now strongly condemned. 'Social change takes a long time to happen, and recent events show that racism in football is unacceptable now, a very different position to how it was in the 80s. I have picked up a lot of information over the years on the way that comms can change things and I hope to use that know-ledge at Diabetes UK,' she says.

Following stints at the CRE, the Food Standards Agency, Which?, Lambeth Council, the Council of Europe and the Foreign Office, does she not hanker to work in the private sector?

'I would not rule it out,' she says. 'My motivation is to improve people's lives.

I hope that doesn't sound holier than thou, but it's actually very fulfilling if you are a communicator to see outcomes where you are reducing the number of amputations, extending life expectancy or reducing the number of people who have a really difficult condition such as diabetes.'

Former Which? colleague and Lambeth neighbour Peter Jenkins, now head of comms at energy firm Iberdrola, says of Ansari: 'I can't see her selling soap powder.' He adds: 'She is one of the foremost communicators we have at the moment and has an in-depth knowledge of how the media operate and excellent contacts. She's extremely strategic and comes up with ideas you can sell in. Louise is a leader that people will follow.'

She has taken her latest role at a time when Diabetes UK is redoubling its efforts to raise awareness of the condition under the leadership of Barbara Young, who became chief executive in 2010.

The UK suffers a massive incidence of diabetes-related blindness, amputations and up to 24,000 early deaths each year. Diabetes UK says that much of this could be avoided with proper care, but research shows that in some areas doctors and health trusts are failing to test more than half of diabetes patients and many go on to suffer sometimes fatal complications.

So Diabetes UK is pressuring the NHS to follow the advice of medical regulator NICE to ensure all diabetes patients have nine important tests annually. There is a huge lobbying job to get health trusts, government ministers and doctors to live up to their responsibilities.

Ansari believes the facts about diabetes are so shocking that the media are willing to give the issue a good airing. 'We get a lot of good media coverage,' she says.

This must come as a relief after some of her previous jobs. She was head of comms at Lambeth Council, putting the borough's side of the story against frequent criticism from local and national media. She laughs as she recalls one splash in the local paper, which claimed the borough was suffering from an outbreak of 'squirrels on crack'.

She was director of comms at the British Embassy in Madrid for three years, dealing with the ash cloud crisis - as the British Government came under pressure to get thousands of stranded passengers back to the UK - while handling the thorny issue of Gibraltarian sovereignty with the Spanish press in hastily learned Castilian.

By contrast, Diabetes UK gets a sympathetic ear from health journalists on national newspapers and broadcast media. 'The core of national health journalists in Britain have an incredibly in-depth knowledge and my team has good relations with them all,' she says. 'We need to keep this issue on the health and front pages but also broaden our reach to comment and economics pages.

'We want the FT and The Economist to be looking at diabetes in terms of how it affects the economy and society, as much as it being a health or lifestyle issue.'

Those who have worked with her believe Ansari is an ideal person to spearhead the campaign.

Edelman director Anna Butterworth - another former Consumers' Association colleague - says Ansari has found a natural home for her talents at Diabetes UK: 'Louise has a track record in delivering high impact, strategic media campaigns that bring about positive change. She has the ability to get under the skin of an issue and make it matter to the powers that be.'

Away from her day job, Ansari professes a love of poetry, modern classical music and the sport of fencing.

It seems more than just coincidence that her fondness for the fast, exhilarating sport, akin to physical chess, rather suits a campaigner constantly on the lookout for a stab at the next front page.

CV

2011 Director of comms, Diabetes UK; consultant to the director of comms, Diabetes UK

2008 Director of comms, British Embassy, Madrid

2006 Deputy director of comms, Council of Europe, Strasbourg

2003 Head of comms and consultation, Lambeth Council

2002 Senior press officer, Food Standards Agency

1999 Campaigns media relations officer, Which?

1997 Development manager (fundraising), London Festival of Literature

1996 Senior press officer, Health Education Authority

1993 Head of campaigns, Commission for Racial Equality

1991 Policy officer, Commission for Racial Equality

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

The CRE, my first job in comms, was my biggest break, as well as getting the job at the British Embassy in Madrid, and going from Lambeth Council to the Council of Europe. Every step of my career has been a fantastic move.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Herman Ouseley, now Baron Ouseley, at the CRE. Sheila McKechnie at the Consumers' Association was really wonderful and driven. You get a very strong vision and ambition from people like them.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Be very open to lots of different kinds of experience. That has worked for me.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Good skills in comms, excellence in writing and understanding of how to deal with lots of different kinds of people diplomatically.

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