Rethink statue stunt sparks controversy - VoluntarySector

Campaign: Rethink Anti-Discrimination
Client: Rethink
PR team: In-house
Timescale: March 2006
Budget: £100,000 (including advertising)

Mental illness carries a stigma that can affect many aspects of people's lives. A survey by charity Rethink, the largest provider of mental healthcare in Norfolk, found that two-thirds of Norwich residents would not admit to having a mental health problem if diagnosed with one.


To raise awareness of mental health. To challenge perceptions about those with mental health problems, particularly the view that they cannot hold public office or contribute to society.


Rethink kicked off the campaign with a poster and radio ad launch on 1 March. This took the form of a press conference and photocall, supported by mental health service users who talked to the media about their positive experiences.

The highlight of the event was local businessman Norman Smith, regional chair of the Norwich Federation of Small Businesses, who discussed his recovery from a suicide attempt. As well as putting Smith through media training and offering him for interview, the in-house PR team distributed press packs to journalists containing facts and figures about mental health.

Media interest in the campaign was spurred when Rethink enlisted Stephen Fry. He discussed the charity's initiative on regional TV during a visit to a Rethink centre.

Journalists were not the only targets. Rethink also sent letters to GPs in Norfolk, highlighting the need for them to consider alternatives to anti-depressant drugs when prescribing for mental health patients.

But Rethink did not anticipate the negative reaction to the last phase of the campaign in March - Norwich North MP Ian Gibson unveiling a statue of Winston Churchill (who suffered the symptoms of manic depression, which he famously described as 'my black dogs') in a straitjacket in the city centre.

The national press echoed criticism of the stunt by Churchill's grandson, Tory MP Nicholas Soames, who called it 'absurd and pathetic'. Rethink felt compelled to move the statue, which itself prompted mental health service users to hold a protest.

Rethink answered 200 calls on the day the story broke, from media, protesters and supporters.


The statue controversy fired up publicity for the campaign. Of the articles in regional media, such as the Eastern Daily Press, BBC Radio Norfolk and Look East, 22 were positive, seven negative and 11 neutral. Of the articles in national newspapers,including the Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Mail, six were positive, 23 negative and 19 neutral.

All coverage by foreign press focused solely on the criticism of the Churchill stunt.


The statue prompted a heated debate in the Norwich area, and according to Rethink, even tourists travelled to the town to see it. But Rethink confirms that a similar campaign planned for Northern Ireland next year will not feature the statue.

Eastern Daily Press health correspondent Mark Nicholls says: 'The Rethink PR team was very helpful and talked us through what the charity was trying to achieve. But its message got clouded by "rent-a-quotes" from newspapers criticising the stunt without looking at the issues.'


James Kelliher, managing director of crisis specialist The Whiteoaks Consultancy.

Mental illness is an emotive and often misrepresented issue. As such, the innovative and bold tactics adopted by the Rethink team have to be admired.

The campaign began with a classic 'tell me' approach, using print and broadcast advertising to raise awareness. This swiftly moved to the more powerful 'show me' approach, by identifying and utilising real mental health service users with positive stories to tell. This enabled the campaign to communicate the reality of an issue that is often invisible to the general public.

The campaign significantly raised the stakes - and eyebrows - with the introduction of the Winston Churchill statue. While the shock factor is not uncommon in some industry sectors, to deploy the technique here demonstrated creativity and bravery.

Unsurprisingly, this tactic prompted criticism and forced the comms team to defend the concept and explain the rationale.

The danger, of course, is the stunt eclipsing the message. The proportion of negative coverage received would certainly suggest that this now presents a challenge for Rethink's PROs.

To initiate informed debate and positively influence public perceptions over time requires a rich mix of PR tools and techniques. In terms of meeting the original objective to raise awareness of mental health issues, this was a job well done.

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