John Coventry - Sign up for social change

The UK comms director for petition website Change.org is helping ordinary people to get their voices heard, reports Daniel Farey-Jones.

Email offensive: John Coventry
Email offensive: John Coventry

If none of your clients ever pay you, give up your career in comms. Unless, that is, you are John Coventry. He inhabits the anomalous world of Change.org, which he joined shortly after its UK launch from an associate directorship at Kindred in April 2012.

This US import offers anyone with a cause not only a free platform to run petitions and campaigns, but potentially a sprinkling of comms fairy dust at no cost.

Coventry is there to help the uninitiated shape their message and understand how the publicity machine works. In a typical month, this mile-a-minute talker helps secure between 50 and 200 pieces of media coverage.

Among 60 campaign victors since September is Stacy Stafford, who fought Glasgow Council's decision to cut funding for her severely disabled son to travel to his special needs school.

'She got 7,500 signatures and because of the people behind her, suddenly she was on the front pages of the Scottish press,' says Coventry. 'We saw it kicking off and I gave her an hour's media training over the phone so she knew what to say and how to say it. She is now one of our ambassadors, talking to other mums about how to campaign.'

The former War on Want media officer claims: 'Change.org opens up doors to a world that is normally restricted to massive charities or expensive lobbying firms.'

While there is no doubt he loves helping the underdog, let us be clear, the 33-year-old is paid for his trouble. The for-profit business is funded mainly by US advertisers, though Coventry clarifies his role does not involve banging the drum to potential commercial partners.

It does involve increasing awareness of Change.org and playing up its influence, so he is cock-a-hoop about the media attention and the 470,000 signatures earned by a challenge to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week.

Although Duncan Smith dismissed it as 'a complete stunt', Coventry enthuses: 'One guy (petition starter Dominic Aversano) led the entire news agenda for a week. It puts the public debate about welfare back in the hands of the people.'

His interest in using the media for empowerment was much in evidence when Coventry worked at ActionAid, says his former boss Jane Moyo, who remembers a popular, driven character gifted at dealing with journalists. 'He totally believes in ending poverty in the developing world,' she says. 'Press officers can learn all the skills, but if they are not motivated to make a difference they are not going to be successful.'

Asked whether Change.org skews to left-leaning voters in light of the Duncan Smith hit, Coventry is unable to say, as the site does not collect such data. Although he admits to being a son of two Labour activists and having attended a couple of party meetings in the past, he says he follows the rule that employees should stay above party politics.

Anyway, he argues, ideological campaigns generally bomb while issues of justice, which the team frequently highlights on the home page, catch the imagination. An example is Nick and Jane Lawton's attempt to change a law they link with their son killing himself two days after failing a breath test. They were not informed he had been detained in police custody overnight because 17-year-olds, while treated as children if charged, are treated as adults when arrested.

This is one of the eight or so cases each month that Change.org's small team chooses to put its weight behind, with one of Coventry's two colleagues going with Nick Lawton to the GMTV studio for an interview. The law was ruled 'incompatible' with human rights last week.

Handling such emotional issues can be a heavier responsibility than working for the usual cast of clients. 'You feel a pressure to get it right in a way you don't feel with marketing directors,' points out Coventry.

He also reacts passionately to criticism from one lobbyist that petition sites annoy MPs by emailing them every time a supporter signs up, which Change.org does. 'Social is here to stay and MPs need to deal with it,' he bristles. 'I find it incredibly frustrating when MPs consider it an affront that their voters want to get in touch with them.

'I appreciate it's not easy, but it's also just an email. We don't do it to shut down people's email systems, we do it to show the depth of feeling on an issue. MPs are busy people, but so are the people who have taken time to campaign on our site.'

Clients do not often get such bloody-mindedness in their corner for free.

CV

2012 UK comms director, Change.org

2009 Associate director, Kindred

2007 Account director, Munro & Forster

2005 Head of news, ActionAid

2003 Media officer, War on Want

2002 Media volunteer, War on Want

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Every job I have been lucky enough to do, but working for the Make Poverty History media team in 2005 was my first taste of a major public campaign.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Steve Tibbett (then campaigns director for War on Want) gave me my first job when I was pretty clueless. He was the first to show me what great comms can do as part of an issues campaign. I have also worked with some top people, who encouraged free-thinking and creativity.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Enjoy what you do and let others know you enjoy it. Become an expert in something. Make people believe they can't do without you in the team. Love the news and consume as much of it as possible from a wide variety of sources.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

They should be keen and willing to learn and bring some experience and understanding to the role. News and social media obsessives are excellent, as are people who really care about doing a good job.

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