Ann Furedi is the CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which provides abortions to nearly 65,000 women a year in England & Wales and is known internationally for promoting women’s reproductive choice and the decriminalisation of abortion. She is an unusual CEO, emerging from a background in journalism and advocacy rather than having followed the usual path of business management or accounting.
On May 22nd 2018, she spoke to the Women in Communications Careers Network to discuss her move from communications to becoming a CEO. Ann’s ambition before she retired was to become the Chief Executive of BPAS. She had a clear strategy to make this happen. After years of being the Director of Communications at BPAS, she now had to place herself outside of the organisation to build her credibility. She left BPAS to become the Director of Policy, Communications & Governance at the HFEA (The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority), an executive non-departmental public body of the Department of Health. With this experience, she could go back to the board at BPAS and better present herself and her vision for the business.
5 Key Points
1) “The hardest part of being a CEO was learning to step back”. No matter how experienced you are, you will never have all the answers. Ann said she had her own way as a rulebreaker, her own vision for the company, and her own passion for the cause. Ann discussed her challenges in moving herself away from the communications piece, the area she knew best. It took her nearly five years to bring in someone she could trust, and she admitted there were obstacles to overcome. But by doing so it paid dividend to her focus and the impact of the organisation.
2) When it comes to the media: “Always be available. Never offer ‘no comment’”. Even if it makes you the devil, always tell the truth. Journalists are not stupid. You must learn how to deal with, not avoid, uncomfortable issues. If you can do that the media will always come to you, which helps you to get your message out.
3) “You must make yourself available to the people you are working and communicating for”. For Ann, a good week is being in the clinics speaking directly to women. The reasons for terminating a pregnancy are very complicated. When approached in interviews, it’s best to have these women’s stories to hand and speak from experience. These stories are the best form of communication; making the issue less black and white than the unappealing scientific and medical technicalities.
4) “In communications, you also have to learn when to be quiet”. Whilst they will always comment, BPAS will intentionally take a step back with some issues, like the Irish abortion vote. This was because the pro-life campaign was trying to imply that BPAS wanted to drive Irish women to the UK for abortion procedures to improve their clinics’ bottom line. It would have been detrimental for the cause of women for BPAS to be seen as too involved.
5) “Don’t underestimate the power of social”. When campaigning to reduce the price of the morning-after pill in the UK (in some stores it was still almost six times the price of the same drug in France), a purely social effort produced 2,000 emails to the heads of Boots in just one day. Then, when BPAS was threatened by a large law firm on behalf of Boots, they tweeted the letter, gaining more traction for their cause and also triggering donations towards any legal costs the charity was set to incur fighting the case.
Ann’s move from a Director of Press and Governance to CEO had challenges. Still today, she walks into a room and her peers are principally from finance or management backgrounds. However, we are increasingly seeing and appointing CEO’s from a communications and public affairs background. Where advocacy is the main driver for a leader, they are seeking people like you to join them.
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