Interview: Polly Tommey

The chief executive of the Autism Trust explains why she posed in her underwear to get the attention of politicians

In the space of little more than a year, Polly Tommey has met Gordon Brown and been in touch with the leaders of the other two main political parties.

Few charities can match that. But then again, few charities have chief executives who are prepared to pose in their underwear or publish their phone numbers on adverts in order to generate publicity.

Tommey's determination to go straight to the top of the political tree has helped elevate the tiny Autism Trust to national prominence in the three years since it was founded. But it has also had a divisive influence among autism charities, some of which think she is damaging their more patient, polite lobbying style.

She is unrepentant. "If you want to get heard, you have to get noticed," she says. "It doesn't matter what you do. It's sad, but that's the way it is."

Tommey, the mother of an autistic 14-year-old boy, says she set up the trust out of frustration at how little was being done for her child and argues that she could not wait for charities such as the National Autistic Society, the largest charity in the field, to make a difference.

So last year she devised a wheeze to catch the eye of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown: she sent him a series of messages on 96 billboards, one of which said "I can save you £508m a year" and included her telephone number.

Four days later, Brown called. "It was an unbelievable response," she says. "I knew we had to go directly to him. It would have been a waste of time going any lower."

She met Brown and his wife. "I think he thought 'God, I'm going to have to see this woman'. I screamed and shouted so much on the radio that he would have looked bad if he hadn't."

This year Tommey, who says she discusses campaigning ideas with a friend who used to work for an advertising agency, came up with the idea of copying the famous Hello Boys adverts by Wonderbra. So she stripped down to her bra, Eva Herzigova-style, for photos splashed on 70 digital billboards.

Again, it was all about getting noticed - and it worked. "I'm 43, and the last model who did it was in her 20s, so I wasn't that confident," she says. "But I thought, sod it - it's not about me, it's about the kids."

Within days, all three party leaders had been in touch pledging their support. Labour's subsequent manifesto referred to autism, but the party's election defeat leaves Tommey having to court the new administration.

"David Cameron was the weakest in his support for our advert, so he will probably be difficult to win over," she says. "But I think he will come around. He has to."

But she might have to continue going it alone. She says she "doesn't see eye to eye" with the National Autistic Society or other autism campaigners.

She admires the direct action campaign group Fathers 4 Justice and the charity campaigner Joanna Lumley, but generally doesn't approve of celebrity supporters.

"Celebrities can't talk about the real issues surrounding autism," she says. "I know what's out there. It's passion and determination that sets us apart."

 

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