PROFILE: Helen McCallum, Department of Health - Stepping into the limelight. Helen McCallum is set to tackle the big issues at the Department of Health

Helen McCallum this week officially took charge of communications for the Department of Health (DoH). Her role has been significantly expanded from that held by her predecessor, Romola Christopherson, who retired before Christmas after over ten years in the post.

Helen McCallum this week officially took charge of communications

for the Department of Health (DoH). Her role has been significantly

expanded from that held by her predecessor, Romola Christopherson, who

retired before Christmas after over ten years in the post.



McCallum’s successor as communications head at the National Health

Service’s management body, the NHS Executive, will report to her rather

than to the body’s chief executive.



She has been given a position on the departmental board, and as well as

Christopherson’s press and publicity role, McCallum will focus on

strategic planning, all external relations, and internal

communications.



However in at least one respect McCallum will provide some continuity

with her predecessor - both share a love of acting. Christopherson ran a

variety troupe of civil servants which performed at staff parties, and

McCallum has just appeared in pantomime near her home in Cambridge.



Richard Brown, a family friend and fellow amateur actor, says McCallum

has great charisma and is a natural with the audience. ’She has an

instinctive ability to know how to deal with people. It comes from a

genuine passion on her part. She’d be useless at doing anything she

didn’t feel passionately about.’



One of McCallum’s first passions was student politics. She studied

English Literature at Nottingham in the early 1970s. A politically

independent activist, she fought hard for more student representation in

the management of her university, eventually becoming student union

secretary.



She describes it as probably the hardest job in her life, and is a

little wry about the experience. But she went on to enjoy 14 years

working in university PR and fundraising, at Salford then Sheffield

universities.



She joins the DoH as the dust settles on the purge of Government

information heads and the root and branch review of the information

service that followed Labour’s election 20 months ago. She is the

eleventh new information head to join a major Government department

since the election. According to McCallum: ’There have been changes in

the understanding of what a Government department might do in

communications terms and my new job is a reflection of that. This is a

Government that wants more joined-up thinking, it wants to focus on big

issues like the family, like children, like public health.’



Like other new Government information heads, she will place particular

emphasis on planning and inter-departmental co-ordination. Within the

DoH, she will work to co-ordinate PR across both health, including

issues like BSE and antibiotic-resistant bugs, and social services,

which, to make things more complicated, are actually run by local

councils rather than the department itself.



Four years at the NHS Executive have prepared her for the job of

changing the working culture of the 100 staff she will oversee. She

integrated internal and external communications within the executive and

established the NHS’s first national communications strategy.



Rachel Chapman, communications head for the Northern and Yorkshire

regional office of the executive, says McCallum’s big achievement is her

success in encouraging the executive’s eight regions to work more

professional and more closely together.



From McCallum’s first health job, as senior PR manager at East Anglia

Regional Health Authority, she has fought to change perceptions of PR

within the service.



She joined the authority in 1989 with the aim of setting up a PR trading

agency, effectively an internal consultancy, and had to sell its

services to the authority, GPs, hospitals and community services. Ten

years on, McCallum says understanding of PR within the NHS is still

patchy. ’Too often it is regarded as simply manning the barricades and

batting the press back out to the boundary,’ she says.



McCallum decided not to become a professional actress because, she says,

’unless you are lucky you get better roles as an amateur’. The part she

has landed in her chosen field should satisfy her ambition for leading

roles for the time being.



HIGHLIGHTS



1985: Alumni officer, University of Sheffield



1989: Senior PR manager, East Anglian Regional Health Authority



1994: Communications head, NHS Executive



1999: Communications director, Department of Health.



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