As a teetotal 48-year-old mother and successful career woman, Betty McBride isn't the kind of person you would immediately think of as irresponsible.But a fortnight ago an advertisement put out by her marketing and communications team at the British Heart Foundation was banned for being precisely that.
The advert showed a woman with a polythene bag over her head accompanied by the strapline, "I've got heart failure and this is what it feels like every morning".
Launched to coincide with British Heart Week, the image signalled a deliberate shift in emphasis by the charity away from heart disease to heart failure.
It was highly effective, resulting in 13,500 calls. But it also prompted 238 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the most since model Sophie Dahl posed naked for Opium perfume in 2000. The ASA decreed the ad might encourage children to risk suffocation by copying the image. In short, it was irresponsible. "I don't feel irresponsible,
says McBride. "What I do feel is it's something we were passionate about and worked very hard to get right."
McBride's measured but firm defiance belies a lingering sense of injustice felt by the British Heart Foundation. The charity feels it was hung out to dry by the ASA after the two organisations had worked closely together to make sure the advert was suitable. Original line drawings of the creative, designed by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, were shown to the Committee of Advertising Practice, the body that writes the codes for the ASA, and the final version was also shown before it went out.
"The first time they did say we should include a warning about polythene bags, which we did,
says McBride, who is particularly annoyed over the ASA's ruling that the advert might have been acceptable had it not been printed in publications likely to be seen by children. "We told them twice what media we were going in so they knew children might see it,
"Everyone who advertises is told to go to the Committee for advice but it doesn't appear to mean anything. Their advice isn't worth the email it's written on."
Despite McBride's sense of betrayal, she has encountered enough sharks in a long media career spanning two decades in journalism before switching to PR to keep matters in perspective. "We swim in these waters, I understand the rules,
she says. "I have my job to do and they have theirs. I wish the ASA could have stayed on the fence but I don't think they can do that. They have to make a choice."
Such pragmatism is typical of McBride. Asked if she would do the same again, she pauses and says: "If I was in the same place, at the same time, in the same situation then yes I would do it again because 13,500 people now know more about heart failure. I'm aware it did cause a lot of distress to people but if we were weighing the scales of justice then 13,500 to 238 shows our view was a reasonable one."
It isn't the first time McBride has attracted the interest of the ASA.
At Help the Aged her team highlighted the issue of winter deaths by laser projecting a poster showing two feet in a morgue on to the House of Commons.
On that occasion, the ASA didn't find against McBride's team. "It put Help the Aged at the front of the battle and shortly afterwards winter fuel payments were introduced,
she recalls. Previous British Heart Foundation advertising campaigns have showed people suffering heart attacks in public.
But McBride denies that she is out to shock. "The reason we did this ad was because we felt it would work and I have the figures to prove it did,
she says. "Some charities use shock adverts because they have low spend and it's a cheap way of making a lot of noise. I have been involved in those sorts of campaigns in the past but that was not the case with this one. We were not courting media attention, we were trying to show the distressing symptoms of heart failure and to get it right.
"I'm a mother myself and I don't leave my caring, sharing side at home when I come into work. I'm more earth mother than anyone you could hope to meet and I have the hips to prove it."
McBride meets each question head on and when in full flow takes some stopping. She is certainly confident. "I think I'm a talented individual and could earn double my money somewhere else but I don't want to work anywhere else,
"I don't see myself ever moving out of the voluntary sector, it is so vibrant and lively. I have a dream job working for an organisation that values communications and gives it big budgets. I want to do what I do and go home and say to my children 'today I did something useful.'"
McBride oversees a team of 25 that fields between 250 and 500 media enquiries a month and generates around 1,330 pieces of coverage a month for the British Heart Foundation. She describes her role as "thinking strategically about the way the charity's voice is going to be heard over the next five years". She enthuses: "We're moving forward in leaps and bounds. We've become more approachable. We have a high level of awareness.
The goal for the next five years, she explains, is not only for people to know of the charity but also what it does.
As for how the British Heart Foundation is perceived now, McBride sums it up in three words: caring, authoritative and - she says without a trace of irony - responsible.