How cancer charities get their lifesaving message across

Cancer charities rely on public support for their lifesaving research, but with the pandemic decimating budgets, preventing fundraising and publicity events, they must find new ways of getting their message across


Runners starting Cancer Research’s annual Race for Life event in Southampton in 2013
Runners starting Cancer Research’s annual Race for Life event in Southampton in 2013

Half of us will develop cancer in our lifetime. There is no avoiding this terrible, uncomfortable truth. Hundreds of charities in the UK support people affected by the disease and these charities accounted for more than 50 per cent of publicly funded cancer research in the last year. The role of communications is of critical importance as cancer research marketing helps to increase awareness, protect public health and encourage people to donate.

This is no simple task. Public relations, marketing and advertising teams have to contend with the ever-changing media landscape and the way people engage with information is constantly evolving. The boom of TikTok and seemingly unstoppable rise of podcasts are just two channels that must be considered by any communications department. Everything must be evaluated for relevance: will it help a charity reach its target audience?

Although we are increasingly on our smartphones and digital devices – we spend an average of 3 hours 29 minutes online each day, up 17 minutes compared to last year – the voluntary or third sector is renowned for face-to-face fundraising. 

Large-scale events like Cancer Research UK’s Race For Life and the bobbing rainbow of charity-coloured clothing at the London Marathon are essential parts of a charity’s public-facing communication strategy. The pandemic and necessary social distancing razed most events’ financial potential in 2020.

Instant health information at our fingertips

Even before coronavirus came along, cancer charities’ marketing and communications teams had to try to cut through the vast amount of information already out there.

We are a nation of Googlers: on average, UK adults spent 47 minutes a day on Google in 2019. Alison Day, director of communications at Prostate Cancer UK, says access to instant health information online is positive as it can educate people on cancer’s associated risks. However, she warns: “This can also bring misinformation and misunderstanding. Charities have moments, if not seconds, to get their brand messages across and for the right information to land.”

When Prostate Cancer UK comes up with ideas, Day considers how cancer research marketing messages will land among a sea of others: “What will make our story jump off a Facebook timeline or catch your eye during an ad break?” She says it is essential to show the public the truth of the number-one cancer affecting men and now the most commonly diagnosed cancer. “You can’t talk about prostate cancer without showing the reality of the disease and the gut-wrenching injustice it causes,” says Day.

Jo’s Trust, the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity, believes it’s crucial to have a dynamic communication strategy that spans many channels. “We’re very aware that one medium doesn’t reach every person,” says Kate Sanger, head of communications and public affairs. Its outdoor advertising speaks to a different audience than its social media support forums for women living with the disease.

Life-changing cancer research marketing campaigns

Coronavirus meant Jo’s Trust lost 60 per cent of its fundraising income almost overnight. It had to reconsider plans to best supplement the NHS and keep communicating how cervical cancer is largely preventable. The challenge is getting the tone right when so many people are experiencing heightened anxiety. Sanger says: “We didn’t want to overburden and criticise the NHS, and at the same time we never want to make anyone feel like they are to blame if they can’t attend a smear test.”

Ovarian cancer is one of many versions of the disease that does not have a reliable screening programme. It means knowing the signs and taking action is of vital importance. Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, says: “We have to make our communications work hard to combat low awareness and to help more people understand how the situation with ovarian cancer is so challenging.”

The charity features women with ovarian cancer in its media and social media campaigns, sharing their experiences. Every day, 11 women die in the UK from ovarian cancer and treating it early makes all the difference. “When diagnosed at the earliest stage, 93 per cent of women survive for five years or more,” says Jones.

Target Ovarian Cancer hopes that if people know the symptoms, they will feel empowered to go to their GP. However, research shows just one in five women could name bloating as a key symptom.

Communicating increased survival and racing for life

Cancer survival in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years. Cancer Research UK’s funding of scientists, doctors and nurses has been at the heart of the progress, according to director of communications Laura Peters. “It’s incredibly important to share the impact of our lifesaving work and achievements of our researchers,” she says. 

The charity ensures cancer research marketing is tailored to the bespoke audience of each channel. The reader of a regional newspaper will be interested in different insights than the research community and social channels feature bite-sized information compared to the deep-dives on the science blog, which has seen record visits during the pandemic.

It’s incredibly important to share the impact of our lifesaving work

Peters doesn’t believe people have become desensitised to cancer research marketing messages, even amid the shock of COVID-19. “They are craving information and on-the-ground intelligence from a trusted source. It’s our responsibility to provide that for them,” she says. 

Normally, Race for Life series raises £30 million towards Cancer Research UK’s work in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. During lockdown, the Race for Life at Home initiative encouraged supporters to keep fit and active indoors with regular Facebook live streams. At the end of September, thousands of people across the country took part in socially distanced 5-kilometre runs, raising vital funds in the process. After all, cancer does not stop for coronavirus.  

How will COVID impact future cancer research?

Coronavirus has hit cancer charities’ fundraising and ability to support vital research hard. According to the National Cancer Research Institute, charities’ research spending could drop by 46 per cent, or £167 million, as a result of the pandemic.

Cancer Research UK is projecting a 30 per cent drop in income of £160 million this year and £300 million over the next three years. “We could be forced to reduce the amount of research we fund annually,” says Laura Peters, director of communications. The charity currently spends £400 million on research and, over the next four to five years, it may reduce this by some £150 million a year.

COVID-19 has caused enormous disruption to cancer services across the UK, including delays to cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment. GPs made a quarter of a million fewer urgent cancer referrals in England between April and June, and the Institute of Public Policy Research says this is likely to wipe out almost a decade of lifesaving progress.

Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, says: “The impact of the pandemic on women with ovarian cancer cannot be underestimated.” The financial upheaval means it has had to postpone its next round of ovarian cancer research grants, investigating potentially life-changing projects.

“When there are already too few effective treatment options for ovarian cancer, this is of huge concern,” says Jones.


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