December had been a long month. In fact, it was a long month tacked on to the end of a long year. To be honest, by mid-December I was already starting to ease into the holiday mode and was prepared to let the year drift into history. The Supreme Court of Canada, however, had different plans.
On December 13, 2013 – six months to the day after Pivot’s Katrina Pacey stood before the nine Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada and shared the stories and experiences of street-based sex workers from the Downtown Eastside – we learned that the Court would deliver its decision on the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws in one week. Eleven years of work would culminate in a decision we would receive at 6:30 AM PST on December 20, 2013, the day we had planned to shut down the office for the holidays.
Once the reality of what was about to happen set in, we jumped into high gear. There was nothing left to be done on the legal end. The decision was written and now our job was to share it with the world and to ensure that our clients – sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – controlled the message, no matter what the decision said about the future of the laws. There were so many ways that the decision could go. Our goal now was to bring the voices of Downtown Eastside sex workers into the public discourse and share those voices with the largest audience possible.
Recognize the opportunity
Long before we knew which date the Supreme Court would deliver their decision on Bedford, we knew that – whether positive, negative, or somewhere in between – the decision would provide a important opportunity to share our clients’ stories and to get Canadians talking about sex workers’ rights. If we did our job effectively, for one day, the entire country’s attention would be focused on this issue, and our client’s voices would be front and centre in that dialogue.
We hadn’t counted on that day being the Friday before Christmas, but we realized that December 20, 2013 had the potential to become one of the most important days in the history of our organization. This opportunity required all hands on deck, and we needed to get down to the business of fully embracing the communications potential the decision offered.
Build a plan
The Bedford media plan was based on a formula that we had developed through experimentation over the past two years. The morning the Supreme Court decision on the InSite case came down, again at 6:30 AM PST, we gathered with the crowds that took over Hastings Street in front of the supervised injection site, to hear the decision first-hand. The plan was to celebrate (hopefully!) with our community, then hurry back to the Pivot office to drive over to the North Shore for our annual staff planning retreat. On the walk back, one of our lawyers mentioned the number of Facebook posts asking what the decision actually said and we thought it be great if there was a short summary to send around. We had 20 minutes before we had to get in the car, and when we got back to the office we decided to work collectively and use that 20 minutes to fire out a basic summary and post it on our blog. We got The InSite Decision in a Nutshell up on our blog before most people in Vancouver had finished their first cup of coffee, and it became the most viewed post in our blog’s history.
Recognizing we had stumbled upon a winning formula with the InSite post, we began to further experiment with this type of rapid response communication. The next major opportunity came with Pivot’s first Supreme Court decision. Pivot had represented Sex Workers’ United Against Violence (SWUAV) – a collective of Downtown Eastside sex workers – in their fight to be granted the right to challenge laws as a group. The hearing was in early 2012 and the decision was to be announced on September 23, 2012.
We received the decision early in the morning. Our legal team had assembled at Pivot at 5AM and poured over the decision for 30 minutes to pull out key points. We then divided into two groups: one group was tasked with writing our press release and developing the key messages for our press conference and the other group was tasked with writing our blog post. The idea was to have the post out as quickly as possible so that it would be the go-to online summary of decision. We knew that it had to be short, engaging, and easy to share – and this had to be reflected in the title. Our piece entitled, Supreme Court decision in SWUAV - the short version, hit the web at 6:30 AM and quickly became the most viewed blog post in the history of the organization – more than tripling the views of the InSite post.
The Bedford Decision
We knew the Bedford decision was going to be bigger; the issue was more controversial and there would be more voices trying to be heard. As soon as we got word that the decision was coming we convened a meeting to devise a strategy. We discussed the different elements required for success: press (local and national), blog posts, social media, and an email to our closest supporters. We decided to send our campaign lead, Katrina Pacey, to Ottawa to attend the court lock-up. The idea was that Katrina would receive the decision an hour before it went public and would be able to flesh out the draft press release and blog post we had prepared earlier in the week. She would also be available for national media.
We decided to draft all of the press materials in advance. We prepared a traffic light press release that had three versions of the decision: a win (green), a loss (red), and a middle ground (yellow). We prepared key messages for each of the outcomes. We split our team into two groups – the press group (responsible for the press release and the press conference) and the blog group (responsible for getting the blog out as quickly as possible). We also discussed potential tweets and Facebook posts. We engaged a photographer and invited the video crew from Combination Films to come down and capture the morning. Finally, we decided to invite sex workers, allies, and Pivot supporters to our office on the morning of the decision to witness the press conference and to share in this historic day.
I woke up on December 20th to a snowy Vancouver. I got on my bike and rode to the Pivot office and was amazed to see that at 5:55 AM there was already a crowd gathered outside. The crowd was made up of sex workers, allies, and supporters. At the same time, our staff, legal team, and volunteers also began to arrive. The night before we had set up the space for the press conference and community gathering. We got inside and got our computers fired up. We set up a projector so that we could connect with Katrina in Ottawa. Media was already starting to arrive, and despite a few small glitches (like the coffee being late!) and the growing anticipation, everyone was in high spirits.
The big moment arrived and our plan went off without a hitch. As soon as we received the decision (after the screams of joy and many hugs) our team got down to work. The press release crew reworked the positive press release and got it out the door almost immediately. Spokespeople began taking media calls, while others finalized the key messages for the press conference.
Katrina sent the draft blog post two minutes after leaving the lock up and the blog unit went to work immediately. The draft blog that Katrina had provided was combined with a pre-written skeleton and posted online. Canada v. Bedford: The Decision in 705 words was released within 37 minutes of the decision going public. It exploded across the Internet. Around 10 AM, already exhausted, I found a quiet corner and wrote an email to our members.
Analysis and follow-up
We felt great about the decision and the way the communications had rolled out for the day, but we also needed to look at the numbers. Canada v. Bedford: The Decision in 705 words became our organization’s most read blog post of all time. Within an hour it had flashed across more screens than the SWUAV blog post. By the end of the day, the blog post had been viewed more times than every other page on our website in the entire month of August 2013. Four months into 2014, it remains the most viewed page this year and has been viewed more than all of our other blog posts combined.
On a day when Canada’s attention was focused on prostitution laws our communications success meant that our client’s voices and experiences were present to frame the debate. Our post became the go-to summary for hundreds of journalists and academics. Tens of thousands of people engaged our website, connected with our work, heard our clients’ perspectives, and listened to stories about our neighbourhood. It meant that the narrative became much larger than a court case and a decision (the right one) by nine of the most powerful jurists in Canada – it became about the lived experience of sex workers in the Downtown Eastside.
When we got back to the office in January, we had a full debrief in which we made sure that new journalists we had formed relationships with were entered into our Nation. We also shared lessons learned and talked about ways we could have made this incredibly successful day run even more smoothly.
Comms to win
Non-profits operate in the economy of ideas. We are often selling new and innovative approaches to society, and in the age of information overload, if we want to win, we have to be savvy communicators. At Pivot, using all forms of media to amply marginalized voices in the public discourse is embedded in our mandate and our organizational DNA. The Bedford decision offered an amazing opportunity for us to bring the voices of street-based sex workers to a very large audience. The decision had national and international implications and we knew that we had one shot.
The communications success we had on December 20th was grounded in the culture of reflection and experimentation that we have fostered at Pivot over the last four years. Investing in communications, including communications strategy, allows our team to recognize opportunities and build a realistic plan for execution. Experimentation builds creativity and innovative ways to communicate. It also requires good measurement – to experiment with new techniques you must have some way of measuring their success. In order for non-profits to be the communication vehicles they need to be in the age of social media, they must be actively and consistently measuring how far their communications reach. This includes setting benchmarks and goals and having the courage to change course when those goals are not met.
At Pivot our work is centred in the courtroom, but it does not end there. Nothing is worth doing if it sits on a shelf and is never discussed and debated in the public sphere. We have done our fair share of congratulatory back-slapping over producing a report that was never read beyond the circle of the converted. Non-profits must engage in comms to win. It is the only way we ever will.