Interview: Robert Lee of the Royal British Legion

The head of media and campaigns talks to Paul Jarvis about keeping the poppy out of politics

Robert Lee, head of media and campaigns, Royal British Legion
Robert Lee, head of media and campaigns, Royal British Legion

Robert Lee, head of media and campaigns at the Royal British Legion, says 2009 has been one of the most satisfying years of his career, despite some tough challenges.

First, BNP leader Nick Griffin wore a poppy during his European election campaign. Then the far-right party began promoting the efforts of one of its members to raise money for the charity. Rachel Firth, a member of the BNP, pledged half of the funds she raised by spending 24 hours in a cardboard box in the street to the legion, and the other half to the BNP.

Lee's position is clear. "We do not take money from political parties," he says. "What we represent must be above party politics." But the media storm that followed news of the promised donation did have an impact on the charity. "It made us more aware of certain pitfalls and made us hypersensitive to these issues," he says.

Lee is not one to shy away from a challenge. He arrived at the Royal British Legion in 2007 after working in Canada as a journalist.

"My father was the president of the Canadian Mounted Police and I'd seen the work of the Canadian army as a journalist, so there was a link there," he says.

The idea of tackling problems such as those created by the BNP furore appealed to him. "If you don't like handling difficult situations, you're in the wrong job."

His appetite for challenge has helped reposition the legion as a relevant armed forces charity. Lee says the Poppy Appeal enjoyed a breakthrough year this year, engaging a younger generation. The charity launched an online community, Legion Live, and a YouTube channel that was the most viewed not-for-profit channel in Britain during the Remembrance Day commemorations.

But getting to this stage has been a long process. "When you're dealing with a mighty ship like the British Legion, it doesn't turn around on a dime," he says.

He's also been able to call on the support of celebrities - although he's careful to point out that their appeal lies not in their status but in the artistic element they lend to a campaign. Rock bands Athlete and Radiohead both released singles from which all proceeds went to the legion. Maintaining links with a younger audience will be key to the charity shifting its focus to the "Afghan generation", Lee says.


2007: Head of media and campaigns, Royal British Legion

2006: Oil and gas communications consultant

2005: Executive consultant, external relations, Petro-Canada International UK

2003: London contributing editor, Maclean's, a weekly Canadian news magazine

1997: Executive producer and on-air host, CTV Canadian television network

1989: Author and screenwriter

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