IN A context where public relations and charity fundraising have become #dirtywords, potent disproval is provided by Daffodil Day, and fair dues, this year, to Isabel Bray. Isabel is a staff member but also a volunteer fundraiser for the Irish Cancer Society — just one of thousands out collecting for the charity as the weekend drew on. She’s also impulsive. An opportunist. Now, impulsivity in PR can come back and bite the impulsive soul, but in this instance, the payoff was enormous.
Isabel was flogging daffs outside the Kilkenny Shop on Dublin’s Nassau St when she spotted that former US president Bill Clinton and his team had gone into the shop to buy a thing or two.
“As he was coming back out I thought it would be nice to give him a bunch of daffodils and explain what Daffodil Day is all about,” she told the Mail later. Bill was charming. Unsurprisingly. He shook her hand. He posed for photographs. He chatted, listened to the pitch, and told the fundraiser she was working for a very good cause. The Irish Cancer Society immediately tweeted the picture, crediting Bill with lending his support to that good cause. Game, set, and PR medal to Isabel.
But then, the history of Daffodil Day is an instructive narrative of informed opportunism. Roughly 30 years ago, an Irish businessman named Charles Cully noticed a promotion in Canada whereby, on one day in the year, daffodils were sold as a fundraising device. Imported to Ireland in 1988, the idea was that the funds raised would go to a special team of nurses who could give specialised care to patients suffering from cancer, often, if not always, in their own homes.
This, remember, was back in the day when people muttered to each other about “the Big C”, in order to avoid use of the deadly word and the deadly concept, because a diagnosis of cancer at the time still conveyed a death sentence to the individual involved. Since then, the diagnostic methods have improved beyond belief, the treatments are better and more sophisticated, and the prognosis, for many cancer sufferers, a whole lot more optimistic than three decades ago.
It’s been rightly said that cancer touches every family in Ireland, but important to remember that in an increasing number of those families, the person diagnosed with some form of malignancy goes into remission or, after the magical five years during which they live in an almost foetal crouch, is given an all-clear and an indicator that, statistically, they’re pretty much at the same risk level as the rest of us.
When the Cancer Society, back in the day, decided to try out Daffodil Day, they did the kind of in-depth thinking that has undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of the event. They didn’t start at the publicity end. They started at the engagement end.
They wanted to involve every parish, townland, and community right across Ireland, and that meant an enormous amount of logistical and conversion work. By “conversion” is meant that people who had lost a loved one to cancer had to be approached — sensitively — with the idea that they could best contribute to the memory of their dead friend or relative by fundraising. It meant convincing people that cancer could be turned into a chronic, rather than a necessarily lethal, disease, and that if they were to participate, they could save lives and ameliorate suffering.
It meant doing that most basic, difficult task: Asking for help. The capacity to ask the uninvolved to get involved is the single most important factor in successful political life, and it’s the same with fundraising. It’s a vitally important task, but it’s not that difficult, as politicians and fundraisers constantly find to their surprise. People are altruistic. More importantly, people want to belong, whether it’s to a church, the GAA, a group following a celeb on social media, a political party, or charity.
If involving people in communities right around the country was one advance priority, bulbs were another. Hundreds of thousands of daffodils had to be planted in November if a sufficient quantity of the flowers was to be available in the springtime. Then, and only then, did the PR kick in. The company I ran at the time was heavily involved, with the brief that wall-to-wall publicity was to be achieved directly before Daffodil Day, but it was all to be free. No advertising. At the time, and because it was a pilot, the emphasis was on unpurchased publicity. That changed as time went on, and advertising agencies proved to be marvellously generous with their time, expertise, and space.
Low-level coverage to introduce the idea needed to happen back at bulb-planting stage, and so two student nurses were photographed in the Botanic Gardens, on their knees with trowels, ostensibly doing horticulture. The photographs were black and white, because colour photos were rare in newspapers at the time and the two girls in the shot look like nurses in a TV series from much earlier in the 20th century, with their pointless pointy white caps stuck on the backs of their heads.
RTÉ personalities like Pat Kenny, the late Derek Davis, Bibi Baskin, and Anne Doyle agreed to be photographed having a daffodil pinned to their lapels. The artwork was cheap and more effective as a result: Black and white photographs with a bright yellow flower pulling the attention of the passer-by. The RTÉ Guide liked it and did a cover.
But from the very start, this was about more than money. It was about public education, and so approaches were made to the producers and scriptwriters of radio soap operas, asking if they would include a cancer-related story in their upcoming scripts. They did.
Not everything worked so swimmingly. The notion of replacing the shamrock on the tail of Aer Lingus planes was a good one, but once the airline looked at the cost of the massive decals and factored in the cost of grounding even one plane to have the thing transferred, they backed off. Even then, informed opportunism kicked in, with publicity being gained from the effort to substitute a daff for the normal logo. Aer Lingus cabin staff, however, were photographed around Shannon Airport pinning daffs to any willing passing celeb. Even Molly Malone got in on the act. The statue had no objection to her wheelbarrow being filled with flowers.
Looking at the coverage in the past week, decades after that first madly successful pilot, what was on display was a clever idea nourished into longevity and broad spectrum efficacy by careful brand management and by the constant commitment of ‘ordinary’ people who have, by their efforts, helped, not only to fund vital services to cancer sufferers, but to change our understanding of the disease itself, and how to prevent it and manage it.
It’s a case study in excellence. Excellence in public relations. Excellence in fundraising. Excellence in health education. Added to every year by clever individuals like Isabel.
From the very start, this was about more than money. It was about public education