Q&A with Alastair McCapra

Posted on: Wednesday 27 September 2023
Author: FPM

We are delighted to welcome Alastair McCapra as our newest Lay Trustee at FPM. With a wealth of experience in leadership roles and a strong commitment to contributing to the advancement of science-based health, Alastair brings a unique perspective to our team.

Below, Alastair shares insights about his background, notable achievements, and what motivated him to join us as a Lay Trustee.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself! What is your background, and what inspired you to take on this role with us?

For the past ten years, I served as the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Prior to that, I held the position of CEO at the Landscape Institute and the Institute of Conservation. I have served as a trustee several times before; for example, I chaired the National Heritage Science Forum and served as the secretary of Wikimedia UK, the charity that supports and promotes Wikipedia in the UK. Additionally, I have also contributed to several finance and audit committees over the years.

My hobbies include walking with my extremely nosey three-year-old French bulldog, singing in a local choir, and editing Wikipedia. I am a passionate opera lover and have recently returned from an early music festival in Bayreuth, which I found very enjoyable. I used to enjoy gardening but now I absolutely hate it and can’t stand the thought of wasting another minute messing around with plants.

Alastair McCapra

2. Can you share a notable work achievement or project you’ve been a part of that you’re particularly proud of?

Looking back on what I’ve done in different roles, I’d say I am most proud of two achievements. Firstly, during my time at the CIPR, I designed a new process for assessing PR practitioners to become chartered. This has made becoming chartered a mainstream aspiration for many public relations professionals, and it has allowed us to increase the number of chartered practitioners by more than tenfold over the last seven years. We are now well on our way towards becoming a chartered profession rather than just, as we were before, a professional body with a charter.

Secondly, during my time at the Landscape Institute in 2008, I faced an incredibly difficult task when the global financial crisis hit shortly after I joined. I had to quickly pull the organisation out of the fire before the whole lot went up. It was a white-knuckle experience! We recovered pretty quickly, although there were weeks when it seemed more likely than not that we would run out of money and have to close the doors.

3. What’s your favourite ever piece of PR?

When you ask people to talk about PR – even PR professionals – they often focus on campaign disasters or ethical failures. Most PR work involves trying to build understanding, often on difficult issues where there may be conflicting evidence, in order to find a consensus that most people can accept. It has also been described to me as ‘seeing around corners ‘ – thinking ahead about potential situations that are likely to arise and trying to prevent or limit any damage they may cause. For these reasons, a lot of ‘good PR’ often remains invisible. If it works, everything appears to glide along smoothly. Only when something goes wrong does it come into focus. So, thinking of my favourite piece of PR isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds.

That said, I was very proud of the communications work that the government conducted during COVID-19. There were, of course, aspects to criticise, but the main focus – first, to help people understand the risks and stay at home, and then to accept a new vaccine – was spot on in my view. The Cabinet Office Communications Team met weekly with an informal panel (including me) from the PR and comms sector to review public opinion data, discuss future campaigns, and measure effectiveness. The work and commitment that went into delivering all this was phenomenal and, in my view, it was mostly very effective. So, in terms of public benefit, I’d say that was an outstandingly good example of effective PR.

4. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was when I was new in my first CEO role. It came from the chair of my board, who told me ‘Never overestimate what people know.’ That might sound damning, but it wasn’t meant to be. Often, as a CEO, it is easy to assume things. For example, you might assume that all of your Board members know each other, or at least know about each other, but often, they don’t. You might assume that because it is normal for associations to have formal processes for nominating individuals to serve as officeholders and to choose them in elections, most people know how this kind of thing is supposed to work. Or you might assume that because someone runs their own company, they must have at least a basic level of financial literacy. None of these assumptions are necessarily true.

Taking a few minutes at the start of a meeting to remind everyone of the context and check that everyone understands what is being discussed and why, helps get the best out of them and avoids crossed wires. Setting the scene for others doesn’t come naturally to me – I always want to go ploughing off to get to the interesting bit (the bit that’s contentious, contested or unclear) as quickly as possible. I have had to learn to do it more often than I would if left to my own devices.

5. What are you looking forward to the most about being a lay trustee in FPM?

I always look forward to finding out about things I know nothing about (I’m a bit like my dog). While I know how charities operate and how boards function, my understanding of pharmaceutical medicine is quite limited. I wanted a board role entirely unrelated to my current job or previous sectors I’d worked in and I am really pleased to have the opportunity to learn about pharmaceutical medicine and the faculty. I hope to meet many members over the coming months.

This experience was also the main motivator for me to volunteer as an FPM trustee. Having seen, from the inside, the integrity and public spiritedness of official COVID comms I have been appalled over the last year to see the backlash against public health measures. Pundits claiming that masks were ineffective, that lockdowns ‘killed as many people as it saved’, or that vaccines are ineffective or a scam, has been disheartening to observe. The rewriting of history, in some cases genuinely stupid and in others just unprincipled, led me to feel a strong desire to contribute to the advancement of science-based health. I wasn’t exactly sure how to act on this idea until I came across the lay trustee role at FPM, which seemed like a great place for me to channel that desire to make a meaningful contribution.

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