Cancer Research UK is the UK's largest charity by voluntary income, but it came second to Macmillan Cancer Support in PRWeek's Charity Brand Index, which ranks charities according to public awareness and perception.
Macmillan's triumph was attributed to the public's greater familiarity with the brand. But CRUK's director of brand and PR Carolan Davidge believes she can forge a closer relationship by using one simple message: CRUK helps you survive.
'The word people often associate us with is hope, and it's an intangible quality,' says Davidge. 'It's difficult for an individual to directly see CRUK in action. When you get treated with a cancer drug, for example, it doesn't say on it "CRUK did some research behind this",' she says.
The charity has taken a two-pronged approach to its challenge. First, it has opened a series of branded research centres across the country so people can see what CRUK does. It is piloting a fundraising event called Shine, where it will ask participants to nominate the type of cancer on which they want their donation to fund research. Although donors have always been able to ringfence their money, this is the first time the charity has proactively encouraged it. If this goes well, it will be rolled out across other events.
Second, CRUK used its recent brand advertising campaign, the first for nearly two years, to demonstrate how the charity changes people's lives. 'We have real people saying to camera, "I've survived thanks to CRUK",' says Davidge. The campaign was the first launched since Davidge took over responsibility for advertising and brand strategy last year, four years into the job. She made sure the ad was created using people who could tell their stories in the media.
The 41-year-old's doll-like frame and soft, friendly manner may surprise anyone expecting the comms director of the charity to be an imposing figure.
Davidge is well known in the sector, both for her work on the boards of sector umbrella organisations (CharityComms and the Science Media Centre) and for her work with other charities on campaigns. Colleagues and industry professionals alike praise her personable approach.
Joe Saxton, nfpSynergy founder, says Davidge is an efficient CharityComms board member and an effective persuader. 'She knows her own mind but she's good at getting others to feed her ideas. She's effective at listening, from taking the time to her body language. The feedback I've had is that she's a good people manager.'
Her collaborative manner is probably a product of her childhood. She was born in Northern Ireland, but her father was in the air force, so she lived all over the world and attended 13 different schools. 'If you are constantly the new girl, you find way of establishing yourself and making friends by becoming adaptive,' she says. Now, Davidge bases herself in Cambridge with her husband and two children, and her day often begins on the commuter train to London, apparently a hub for senior networking.
The most satisfying moment of her career was being part of the campaign that persuaded the Government to make Britain smoke-free in 2007. 'There was a group of us that planned that campaign, and we can say we made that happen,' she smiles.
While removing smoke from public places is one battle, curing cancer is quite another. CRUK has a fine balancing act to perform between demonstrating progress and encouraging ongoing donations. It also needs to avoid scaring people or giving them unrealistic expectations. Navigating rigid media is also tricky - a brief glance at the Daily Mail's headlines shows what the comms team is up against.
Davidge has a strict policy. 'Anything we say about reducing your risk of cancer or increasing early diagnosis is evidence-based. And while we point out risks, we don't want to make people feel they can't do things. If we tell people not to drink, for example, it will fall on deaf ears,' she says.
John Grounds, director of the NSPCC's Child Protection Consultancy, says Davidge is adept at simplifying the complex and often difficult messages around cancer. He also notes her passion for improving the professionalism of the voluntary sector: 'Carolan deserves her excellent reputation. She's a great ambassador, both for the PR industry and the voluntary sector. She's keen to share her experience.'
Davidge says she has always been excited by social issues and causes. 'I see my achievements for people rather than profit,' she says.
CRUK, totally funded by voluntary income, has helped contribute to a doubling of cancer survival rates in the past 30 years. If Davidge wants a cause worth fighting for, she need look no further.
CAROLAN DAVIDGE'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
Looking back, it was probably the year I spent as vice-president of the Students' Union. I managed staff and budgets, planned and executed communication campaigns, and gave speeches, presentations and media interviews. I gained experience that gave me a 'leg-up' the career ladder at a relatively young age.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I've learnt from so many people over the years but I was heavily influenced by the great communicators I worked with at Shelter in the early 1990s - Sheila McKechnie, Louise Casey and Olly Grender. Their strong leadership, solid support and never-ending demand for the best was inspirational.
- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Build relationships with those above you and below you as well as peers. You'll be amazed how many times the same people cross your path in future years.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Passion, creativity and attention to detail.
2008: Brand and PR director, Cancer Research UK
2004: PR director, Cancer Research UK
1999: Chief press officer, Medical Research Council
1996: Head of PR, Macmillan Cancer Support
1995: Head of press, Shelter
1993: Press officer, Shelter
1990: Editor, Adviser magazine, published by Citizens Advice and Shelter