Jam and Jerusalem? Or legalising brothels and demanding equal pay? The National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2015, has two distinct faces. There’s the traditional, cake-baking, craft-loving Middle England one. And there’s the less well-known face, which is at the forefront of campaigning for issues as diverse as protecting the honey bee or working for better maternity care for mothers across England and Wales.
And it’s the job of head of communications Charlotte Fiander to get these different messages across. Fiander, 33, has a degree in politics and philosophy and doesn’t make jam. She joined the WI seven years ago, following two years in communications at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which included working on the 150th anniversary celebrations, and two years as a press officer for The Countryside Alliance.
However, Fiander was familiar with the workings of the WI before taking the job, having helped to set up a WI group in Wandsworth, south west London in 2008. And it wasn’t because she wanted to swap recipes. ‘Like a lot of people my age, my social circle was made up of people I had known at university who had moved to London at the same time as me. I wanted to expand that circle and also get involved in my local community. Setting up a branch of the WI was a way of doing just that,’ she explains.
When Fiander started at the WI’s headquarters in Parsons Green, West London, she was the only one working in communications. Today, she heads up a team of four – including a rare male employee (as a charity with the aim of educating women, men are not allowed to join the WI). Fiander says: ‘I think that the central point of my role is to communicate the two sides of the WI. To lots of people the WI is jam and Jerusalem and yes, that is part of it. But there is also our campaigning side. When the WI campaigns on matters, then we know it is listened to and can influence decision-making.’
The WI is a far reaching organisation, with 220,000 members in 6,300 groups across the country. The newer, town-based WIs tend to be populated by younger women with the countryside ones towards the upper end of the demographics. ‘It’s bit of myth that WI members are elderly,’ Fiander remarks. Women tend to join the group which best fits with their interests: there’s no obligation to join the nearest group. ‘You can choose one which suits you. If you want to be in a WI which is known for campaigning on issues, then you would choose that one,’ says Fiander, ‘but if you are into crafting and cake-making then you would opt for that one.’
But it’s the campaigning side that generally get the WI headlines. Past campaigns have included everything from calling for more research into Aids and HIV to perhaps the more-expected ones involving the countryside and environment. Equal pay is an ongoing campaign for the WI: depressingly, the first time the WI campaigned on the issue was back in 1943. It has also campaigned on prison reform.
‘Any member can propose a campaign: we get hundreds of suggestions every year,’ says Fiander. These suggestions are whittled down by members and then debated at the National Federation of Women’s Institutes annual meeting, and it can take a year from the idea being mooted to being put into action.
Current campaigns are on dementia and supermarket food waste. More than 83 per cent of members last year voted in favour of ‘avoid food waste, address food poverty’, a proposal put forward by the Snailbeach WI in Shropshire. The NFWI has since produced a report and manifesto detailing ways in which supermarkets can adjust their practices to help consumers reduce food waste in the home.
Fiander was closely involved in a past campaign by the WI for an increase in the number of midwives. ‘We worked closely with the National Childbirth Trust asking mothers who had given birth in the previous five years for their experiences. Our findings were used by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and are being used to improve the birth experience for women in the future,’ she says.
Another example of the campaigning power of
the WI was the 'SOS for honeybees' campaign. ‘Back in 2009, the threatened extinction
of the honey bee wasn’t an issue,’ says Fiander. ‘Now the status of the honey
bee has been taken up by other groups. It’s a sign of the power of the WI.’ Indeed, the organisation helped to persuade the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
that a joined-up, comprehensive Bee Action Plan was needed if it was to
tackle bee decline effectively.
And never underestimate the political power of the WI: back in 2000, members of the WI slow handclapped the then prime minister Tony Blair in one of the first public demonstrations of disillusionment he faced. Hardly surprising, then, that feminist Germaine Greer has said: ‘I like the WI best when they are angry.’
And they do get angry, which can be a challenge for Fiander and her team. There were complaints from some members when last year’s annual meeting ended with the kind of flag-waving singing usually seen at the Last Night of the Proms, rather than just the usual mass-chorusing of Jerusalem.
But Fiander’s team was quick to respond to the furore. ‘The WI was founded on the desire to provide an inclusive, welcoming, and open educational membership organisation for all women regardless of background, political beliefs, or religion,’ her press release stated, adding that it was ‘upset to see that some members are not respecting the very personal opinions of those whose views differ from their own’. There was a final rejoinder to ‘treat each other with courtesy and respect’, which is not the traditional language of a media office.
But managing those who aren’t happy about displays of patriotism as well as those annoyed by the 21st century issues that the WI campaigns on is all in a day’s work for Fiander. Ever the diplomat, she adds: ‘A lot of members enjoy the diversity of the WI. We try to work hard so that we reflect the different interests of our members in our campaigning work.’
Campaigning and communicating the WI’s work isn’t just down to Fiander and her team at HQ. Many WI groups have their own press secretaries and have their own Facebook pages. Many are also active tweeters. Those keen to appear talking about the WI on television or radio can have media training with Fiander, although she uses an external agency for national spokespeople.
The WI’s main Facebook page surprisingly only
has 15,500 friends though ‘it is growing’, says Fiander. And while communicating
the campaigning work of the WI is central to her job – on one day during the
centenary celebrations, she ran between the Houses of Parliament, the London School of
Economics and Buckingham Palace for different issues – she hasn’t forgotten the
WI’s roots. ‘We do take part in office Bake Offs’ she admits. Good to know that
cake is close to the heart of an organisation juggling the different needs of
its sometimes very vocal membership.
Favourite social media platform? Twitter for news; Instagram for escape
Best fictional PR person? CJ Cregg in the West Wing
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Ultimate dinner party guest? Michelle Obama
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