A talk on the wild side

Angela Jameson meets Lizzie Lockett, director of communications at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

Everyone loves vets, don’t they? From James Herriot trudging across the Yorkshire Dales in All Creatures Great and Small to Channel 4’s modern The Supervet, set in Fitzpatrick Referrals surgery in the Surrey commuter belt, surely vets don’t need PR?

But for the past 11 years Lizzie Lockett has been director of communications at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, where she has been both reinforcing the good standing of the profession and explaining and communicating the work of the Royal College – the industry’s statutory regulator.

The RCVS, which employs 90 people in a striking Edwardian building within hailing distance of the Department for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs in Westminster, is similar in function to the General Medical Council.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1844, it keeps the statutory register of the vet profession. Only the 28,000 vets on this register can practice veterinary surgery. The regulator also sets the code of conduct for the profession and is the disciplinary body in the event of a complaint.

As a Royal College, it also sets standards for the profession and has argued, in recent years, for UK vets to be allowed to use the term doctor, in line with their European colleagues. It also regulates veterinary nurses, of which there are about 11,000 in the country.

Lockett joined the public sector organisation after a dozen years in the private sector, mostly working in and running B2B PR agencies both in the UK and in Eastern Europe. She admits she probably never expected to find such a varied job in the RCVS, nor to stay quite so long.

One of the roles of RCVS is to promote the sustainability of the profession and to do that it has to promote the skills and versatility of vets.

‘Vets are primarily highly trained scientists,’ explains Lockett. ‘They often feel that the public view of them is that they are just day-to-day clinicians doing very narrow work. Actually they are scientists with a wide skill set that society could benefit from.’ A recent survey showed that vets were the third most trusted professionals, after pharmacists and opticians.

After five to six years at vet school, vets go on to work in a variety of industries. Many deal with beloved pets in clinical practice. Others work in the country dealing with large animals on farms. Some work in zoos and animal conservation. There are also roles for vets working for the Government, in areas such as food safety and controlling animals coming through borders, and in pharmaceutical companies. The message is that vets have a much bigger contribution to play in society than just looking after our pets, important though that is.

For instance, Colonel Neil Smith, a former president of the RCVS who works in the Royal Army Veterinary Corp, recently returned from Sierra Leone where he was helping to control the outbreak of Ebola. His veterinary training made him just as capable of running a field hospital and understanding the biosecurity requirements as a doctor specialising in humans.

Professor Stuart Reid, principal of the Royal Veterinary College, is another example of a vet who is a world leader in his fields (education and epidemiology).

Making sure that vets’ wider role in society is communicated will become increasingly important as the interplay between population health, food consumption, agriculture, poverty and the climate are more pronounced than ever. The world is also facing new threats, such as bioterrorism, antimicrobial resistance and diseases that cross species boundaries, like avian flu.

Such challenges have been grouped together by the World Health Organisation under an initiative called One Health, which recognises that the health of humans, animals and ecosystems are interconnected.  The RCVS wants vets to increase their collaboration with human health professionals and environmental organisations, as a way of recognising One Health.

So there are big challenges facing the profession and the RCVS has, with the British Veterinary Association, been taking a 15 year perspective in a recently launched report called Vet Futures. Lockett and her counterpart at the BVA have been largely steering the Vet Futures report, which articulates a vision for the veterinary profession for 2030 and makes key recommendations.

‘This kind of thing shows how, as a Royal College, we can think more long-term and strategically which helps us to deliver better services for our members and also for the public,’ Lockett says.

It could be tempting to dismiss the RCVS headquarters, with its stained glass windows, book-lined rooms and grand portraits of past presidents, dogs and horses, as an ivory tower. But under chief executive, Nick Stace, who joined three years ago, there has been a three-year strategic plan to modernise and make the organisation more responsive and the staff more engaged.

‘We recognised that we needed to make the RCVS a great place to work if it was to be sustainable. We have been getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy, empowering our staff, taking them out in the field to really connect with the members and the public. There has been a lot of staff training and internal communications so that everyone here can really articulate what our role is, and the part they play in that,’ Lockett says.

Some fun has also been introduced, such as staff yoga classes and some ferocious cake-baking competitions. The RCVS participated in the Great Place to Work programme and scored 93 per cent this year, up from 52 per cent two years ago. It came 30th in the medium-sized organisations category, significantly ahead of global companies like Coca-Cola.

In the last few years, Lockett has been able to push communications much further into the heart of the organisation, helped by chief executive Stace who has a communications background both at consumer group Which? and as strategic communications director for Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

‘As a regulator, a lot of what we are delivering is knowledge and information. Communication is integral to everything we do. One of our challenges within the organisation is making sure my department is not there just to deliver the last mile, writing a press release or creating an app, but that we are involved at the outset of initiatives at a strategic level. I think we are getting there,’ she says.

One of Lockett’s biggest projects this year has been the launch of a five-year initiative on vets’ mental health. Tragically, vets are four times more likely to take their own lives than members of the general public at large.

Lockett says: ‘That’s just not something that we can be happy with. We have a duty of care. As a regulator, we also have a particular interest in this area as vets who are not performing well are not able to offer the best service to society.’

The five-year £1 million project started last January. Half its budget will go towards an existing support programme for vets, but the rest of the budget will be spent trying to change the culture around discussing mental health in the profession.  ‘We want to make vets more aware of the help that’s there and try to get people to talk more about mental health problems and seek help earlier,’ Lockett, the project director, says.

So why are vets so vulnerable to mental health problems? ‘There are specific reasons why vets are more at risk such as perfectionism: these are straight A students, who graduate with flying colours, get their first job and then something goes wrong and they don’t have the resources to deal with failure because they’re not used to that.

‘Another reason is perhaps compassion fatigue and familiarity with euthanasia. If you are often putting animals down, does it increase your tolerance of the idea?’ Lockett says. Vets also have access to means, in their case drugs, to put animals large and small to sleep. Also vets in clinical practice are subject to a lot of stress, running small businesses, employing people and being on-call 24 hours a day.

There could also be something to do with being trained to do an expansive job – knowledge of hundreds of species – then discovering that actually a lot of the job is really just routine.

There are also issues around identity. Some vets have been wanting to do this job since they were children and if they find that they don’t want to do the job anymore it can be difficult to say so.

Lockett has been interviewing vets who have suffered with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for a series of anonymous case studies that will be written up and posted on a Mind Matters website. ‘It’s been really moving talking to those who have considered suicide. There are those who would rather not be, than not be a vet – which is difficult to hear,’ she says.

A number of workshops were held in locations around the country last month, where vets, veterinary nurses and practice managers were invited to learn about spotting the signs that people need help and managing important first conversations. At one, in a group of just under 20 people, every single person in the room had known a fellow vet who had taken their own life.

The RCVS also held a one-day seminar with other professions – dentistry, architects, lawyers, doctors – at the Maudsley hospital in South London, which looked at how the professions can collaborate to tackle this problem. Next year, Lockett will take a play specially commissioned by her on the road to the seven UK vet schools, as a way of starting conversations with students about mental health and wellbeing.

‘We’re trying to do something a bit brave. It might go spectacularly wrong, but either way it will make them talk and that’s the point of it,’ Lockett says.

Alastair Campbell, the former spin doctor and mental health campaigner, whose father was a vet, and Claudia Hammond, psychologist and presenter of Radio 4’s All in the mind will also be appearing at question and answer sessions early in the New Year. ‘We’re not going to cure this but we want to be able to change the culture so that people can at least begin to talk about it.’

For Lockett, whose brother is a vet and whose father is a farmer, it’s clear that this campaign is more than just a professional challenge. Brought up just outside Richmond, North Yorkshire on a farm, she still goes back every February to help her 74-year old dad with the lambing on his smallholding. She had fully intended to become a vet herself and took science A levels. However, a visit to a vet’s practice when she was 16 left her in floods of tears and she ended up studying English literature at Oxford instead.

For Lockett, the role at the RCVS combines science, environment, passion and communication. She is also frequently traversing the country, meeting members at shows, vet schools and other professional events.

‘Social media is great but nothing beats face-to-face contact. The relationship between a regulator and those it regulates could become strained, if it’s not tended well,’ she says.

I put it to the scientifically-minded literature lover that for her, it’s probably the dream job in PR. ‘When I think about it like that, it probably is,’ she says.