THE BLOG

We Took on Friends Life in Memory of My Friend Nic - And Won

16/05/2013 17:40 BST | Updated 16/07/2013 10:12 BST

In October last year my great friend Nic Hughes died of cancer. He died knowing that his insurance company, Friends Life, were refusing to pay out on the critical illness policy he had taken with them. Friends Life were arguing that he had failed to declare relevant information in his initial application, but the facts seemed totally clear: he had died of an aggressive and rare cancer, and Friends Life wanted to cancel his policy because he had not told them that he had had episodes of pins and needles.

I had sat with Nic as he had battled with the company over this decision, reading the letters he obtained from his doctors calling the company's decision "cruel and highly distasteful." I promised him then that I would continue to fight for the family when he was gone. So when, in early December, a Sunday paper ran a piece and a few journalists re-tweeted the story, I wondered if perhaps a grass-roots social media campaign might be the way forward. I got in touch with Stephen Fry's 'tweet team' and he agreed to post about it to his five million followers.

Waves of support and outrage came in at Friends Life's actions and within hours we had a couple of hundred signatures. It was that evening that Change.org contacted me. They had been keeping an eye on the campaign, and wanted to make it their campaign focus for the next day, which meant giving us access to their huge database of supporters. I was so impressed at the handle they had on the petitions that they were hosting, and by their huge energy and enthusiasm for the cause right from the start. Knowing that support, and feeling them being right with us in terms of helping with high-level media enquiries gave us so much confidence.

With all the major national news media running with the story, and with more than 60,000 people signing the petition in a few weeks, huge amounts of pressure was put on Friends Life. Their email system was taken down by the floods of messages they were receiving, their switchboard swamped with callers. And yet, apart from one bland press release, they remained stonily silent. Their twitter feed dried up completely. In other words the company shut its eyes, blocked its ears and waited for it all to go away.

We didn't.

The ability to muster action from 60,000 petition signers gave us huge encouragement to continue pushing the company, and gave the national media confidence that this was a story that people truly cared about. With Friends Life's continued intransigence the case ended up with the Financial Ombudsman and, in the end, it was the law that won the day: a few weeks ago we heard that the Ombudsman had ruled that Friends Life should pay out in full.

We will never know if we would have won the case without the campaign, but the vital point is this: the enormous scale of support meant that Friends Life could not get away with a quiet loss. Having tried to weasel out of paying an ordinary family, the story of their humiliating defeat has been amplified to national news levels in a way that could never have happened without the work of Change.org.

This, I believe is a vital change in the landscape of campaigning. The twin prongs of the law and the media have now been given a third dimension: online petitions and social media. The addition of this third leg has the potential to give a new stability and democracy to activism. The law has always been where final decisions are arbitrated, and the national media where issues are investigated and probed by journalists. But with the dimension of social media and well-organised tools for online campaigning, ordinary people now have an effective way of bringing their stories of poor treatment by huge corporations into the picture. These 'small stories' - as Nic's was - can find resonance with thousands of others who feel the same way, be then validated by the traditional news media and then given real teeth by the law.

Empowered by Change.org, what NicsFight showed is that democracy is in rude health. Companies like Friends Life will have to change the way the think about their dealings with ordinary people, or pay, as in this case, a very very hefty price in destroyed reputation and lost custom.