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
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
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
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.
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.