St John: how the charity ditched its cuddly image

Sue Killen, chief executive, explains why its recent campaign was such a major departure

It was St John Ambulance's first campaign for 15 years, and it certainly made an impression. The 300-year-old first aid charity published posters depicting dead people whose lives could have been saved by basic first aid.

Although the pictures were posed by models, the stark black-and-white lifeless faces, some showing young children, were shockingly effective.

Sue Killen, chief executive of the charity, says the trustees made it clear when she joined two-and-a-half years ago that they wanted more people to know about the charity's work and to correct the impression that it was a military organisation manned by cadets and corporals.

"The campaign was a major departure for us," says Killen. "St John is an organisation focused on doing rather than telling people about what it does.

"But we have found out that we can't do that without sticking our heads above the parapet and telling people why they need to know about first aid."

The advertising agency BBH designed the images using photographs by Nadav Kander, who took pictures for Barack Obama's election campaign.

The first press adverts appeared on 12 April and posters were also due to appear on the London Underground this month.

Killen declines to reveal the cost of the campaign but says it resulted in tens of thousands of requests for first aid guides.

The campaign's main purpose, she says, was to make sure nobody suffered from lack of access to first aid by making people think more seriously about it.

The story of 'Gary', a 17-year-old motorcyclist who died after a crash because no one knew how to get his heart beating and help him breathe, is based on a real person. His mother is supporting the campaign.

"People think first aid is about plasters and cups of tea," says Killen. "They think it's nice to know St John is around, but they see us as cuddly, when in fact what we do is literally the difference between life and death. That isn't understood."

Killen is a former director of the Home Office's anti-drugs unit and leader of the teams behind the privatisation of British Energy and British Coal. She says getting the outside world to understand St John better was one of the challenges that attracted her to the job.

Working for charities, she says, does not require a vastly different approach. "People think the private sector is the most focused on its outcomes," she says. "I disagree with that. If you know you are spending taxpayers' money or donors' money it focuses your mind more."

St John, which has 1,500 staff and 40,000 volunteers, will continue on the campaign trail. "We want to tell people what we are really like; not what they think we're like," says Killen.


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