One of Neil Churchill's first campaigns was easy by anyone's
standards. During his university days, he took part in anti-hunt
protests, a cause that was made simple because of the fact that no one
could recall the local hunt group ever actually catching a fox.
Since then, Churchill, who becomes Age Concern's first-ever director of
communications and marketing in June, has taken up rather trickier
campaigns, with Barnardo's, his present employer Crisis - and helping
his friend Iris Bentley to clear the name of her brother Derek, who was
wrongly hanged in the 1950s.
Churchill approaches his work academically, as you would expect of an
alumnus of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and a recent MBA
Alan Booth, former Barnardo's head of communications and now the BBC
World Service's controller of marketing and communications, backs this
up, saying of Churchill's approach: 'He is very mature about PR and has
a brilliant understanding of strategy.'
However, one national journalist reveals a different side to Churchill.
'He loves karaoke - he's a fanatic. He also knows what journalists want,
which is why we like him, in spite of the karaoke,' she says.
Both sides of his nature are apparent in person. One minute, he talks
very seriously of communication as a science. The next, he's grinning
about an ad campaign featuring old ladies in their underwear. 'Did you
see that Wonderbra-style campaign Age Concern did?,' he smirks. 'They
were great, really fun. People took notice of that. It's that kind of
attitude I like.'
After leaving Cambridge and rejecting a journalistic career as 'too
formulaic', he decided his destiny lay in PR. This brought him to the
London Borough of Merton, where he became one of two PROs in 1988. He
stayed there for three years, working under 'old' Labour, Conservative
and 'new' Labour administrations.
He describes himself as 'very political,' but despite flirting with
Labour during the past 15 years, the south Londoner feels uncomfortable
with a political role. This hit home when, at Merton, he found a
councillor rifling through his litter bin. 'I don't know what he was
after in my bin, but it shows the way some politicians can be,' he
But it wasn't the odd work practices of some councillors that led him to
leave Merton: it was his meeting and subsequent work for Iris Bentley
that convinced him to move his campaigning to the national stage.
At Cambridge, Churchill was a campaigner against capital punishment and
he was touched by the case of Derek Bentley, the 19-year-old Londoner
with learning difficulties wrongly hanged for the murder of a police
officer in 1953. The campaign to clear Bentley's name ended in success,
with him eventually being granted a posthumous pardon in 1998.
'Iris was one of Britain's great campaigners. She was doing it all on
her own and getting massive coverage. I wanted to help her, give some
structure to her campaign and target those who weren't so sympathetic,'
Churchill moved to Barnardo's in 1991 and progressed from PRO to head of
comms in four years. During this time, he oversaw communications behind
the organisation's biggest change - from children's home operator to
high-profile campaigner against child poverty. Under his direction, the
organisation had to come to terms with the failings of an outdated
children's home system: 'It was a tough time, but it was important we
got the message across that it was dealing with its past and looking to
A two-year stint at think-tank The Policy Studies Institute followed,
where Churchill immersed himself in research and policy-making decisions
as its head of communications. But in 1998 he returned to the familiar
territory of charity campaigning, joining homelessness body Crisis.
It is at Crisis that Churchill shows the range of emotion that working
in the charity sector can produce. He beams with pride as he tells of
the achievement of his team in dealing simultaneously with two royal
visits and a homeless party on New Year's Eve 1999. However, his
expression fast turns to a glazed look of sadness as he recalls the
homeless people he has met over the past three years. One was Peter
Davies, a homeless man with a drink problem, who died last year and
dedicated much of his final months to helping Crisis campaigns. 'We
persuaded him to read at a carol service at Southwark. This was a tough
thing for him to do, but he did very well,' Churchill says.
Of his experience in the charity sector, it is his time at Barnardo's
that is most likely to help the 34-year-old Churchill, as he faces a
similar challenge of changing attitudes at Age Concern. He wants to take
its campaigning to a higher level, pushing the issues of old age to a
younger audience, particularly those in their 40s and 50s. Truly a far
cry from his days protecting an imaginary fox.
1990: Works on Derek Bentley case
1995: Head of comms, Barnardo's
1998: Director of marketing and comms, Crisis
2001: Director of marketing and comms, Age Concern.