(This article was originally published in The Tyee as part of Toolkit for Change, a series on communications tips for concerned citizens.)
The first I heard about the pastor was from a radio reporter late one afternoon in 2004. A Christian minister from a little-known evangelical denomination said he was being forced to close his charity-shop to make way for a clinic that would give free heroin to addicts. Was this true?
Our efforts to respond were only partly successful, at best. The first stories that broke that evening on air and in the coming days in print might all have run under the headline: "Free-heroin clinic to evict Christian charity." They quoted the pastor, high-up, on the immorality of his eviction. They noted that he had been giving clothes to the neediest residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Some described the clinic as a new federal program; others got it right (towards the bottom), noting in the final line or two that the pastor's shop was to become the site of NAOMI (North American Opiate Medication Initiative), the first clinical trial of medically prescribed heroin in North America.
By then, however, many would have turned off their radios or turned the page in disgust, and have missed our other key information. That the "cruel" landlord happened to be another well-respected Christian charity. That NAOMI would test a promising new therapy for chronically addicted heroin-injectors -- arguably the most marginalized members of society. And that the trial enjoyed the support of not only drug users, but street nurses, Vancouver's chief of police and mayor, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
This tricky moment could have become a crisis. It could have destroyed the social licence that NAOMI's investigators and nurses had painstakingly earned -- after being run out of another neighbourhood by angry residents -- and prompted Paul Martin's cautious Liberal government to pull the plug.
Instead, over the next week, the story played in NAOMI's favour, by allowing the controversial trial to become much better known. It also helped our team (I was communications manager) prepare for the next and larger communications challenge: the arrival of world media for the launch. In others words, the pastor gave NAOMI a wonderful crisitunity.
Three tips to prepare
Until the dawn of this century, most clinical trials and projects led by medical researchers, or respected public and non-profit agencies, would have elicited little public scrutiny, at least until their results were available. But that was then.
Today's accelerated news cycle and chatty social media, coupled with lower public deference for most public figures, demand that all leaders of significant social change anticipate communications crises. Add to this the junk science campaigns and malevolent ploys by powerful interests to frame their progressive opponents -- e.g., the Harper government's branding of environmental groups as "foreign-funded radicals" -- and you can see why progressives need to be armed and alert.
How? First be good at what you do, and exercise the greatest transparency in your work. Better than any spin, this will ensure that when you come under fire, clients, allies and experts will come to your defence, and key audiences will be more likely to give you, not your critics, the benefit of the doubt.
Few charities or modest social enterprises, however, can rely entirely on their clients or donors to defend them against concerted, well-funded campaigns waged across conventional and digital media -- particularly when they happen fast.
Second, therefore, develop a plan. And third, when the fur starts flying, stay calm and remember three principles that Jim Hoggan, one of Canada's most principled and expert public relations experts, has articulated: "1. Do the right thing; 2. Be seen to be doing the right thing; and 3. Don't get #1 and #2 mixed up."
What sort of planning? Establish a issues team, with leaders from across your organization. Also create a crisis team, with an executive decision-maker, well-trained spokesperson, chairperson and advisors. Then think the unthinkable: identify possible incidents, rank them for impact and probability, and tailor your plan accordingly. Also assess your reputation, your strengths and weaknesses, and test your plan.
Large corporations spend vast amounts doing this. The smartest also look for ways to turn potential criticism in their favour -- crisitunities -- and allow this issues management to drive their marketing. Think of BC Hydro's flagship program, PowerSmart, which reminds rate-payers that the Crown corporation really does value energy conservation over the squandering of public funds on huge hydroelectric dams to provide electricity for costly liquid natural gas production. Or how Bill and Melinda Gates deftly used their HIV-activist family foundation to buff the reputation of Microsoft, tarnished by more than a decade of anti-trust suits and diminishing market share.
Taking calculated risks
NAOMI's crisitunity prompted us to develop a communications plan with three prongs: community consultation (Chinatown and downtown business associations, condominium owners, drug users); government relations (health authorities, all levels of government); and media work.
The trial was in the news for months before its launch in January 2005. Delays in securing the trial drug -- heroin imported from Europe -- and the necessary approvals from Health Canada meant many delays. The U.S. consul also asked for a meeting with the principal investigator, and President George W. Bush's drug czar publicly inveighed against the trial.
Martin's Liberal government had been quietly supportive, but with a federal election in the offing we were afraid it might kill the trial if the U.S. government or conservative segments of the Liberals' electoral base complained vociferously. The use of heroin, perhaps more than any other illicit drug, pushes people's moral buttons, and images of users injecting trigger strong reactions.
For this reason, as well as security concerns, NAOMI took a calculated risk. We refused to allow reporters and cameras into the clinic, and instead hired a former TV news cameraman to help us produce a high-quality video (beta-roll footage) of what trial participants would experience on their daily visits.
With the video producer's doctorly voice-over, viewers then tagged along from start to finish. The participant is buzzed into a tidy waiting room (by me, the friendly receptionist), flips through a magazine until a nurse leads him into another room where he receives his syringe of medication with barcode from a business-like nurse, behind bulletproof glass. Then, from behind, we showed the participant, seated at stainless steel counter, rolling up a sleeve, and tying a rubber tourniquet around his arm, before "self-administering the medication." Later, he returns to the waiting room, to await the nurse's final examination and clearance to leave.
In the video, a posse of unusual suspects then said why NAOMI was important. Here, as in other media, our case was greatly helped by the eloquent principal investigators, Martin Schechter and David Marsh. But the video also featured a street nurse, the head of the Vancouver Network of Drug Users, the mayor and chief of police, even a Crown prosecutor. Seated next to elegant lampshade, he explained -- most poignantly -- that his son, who had been addicted to heroin, would have benefited from NAOMI.
Total production cost? About $5,000, and it was worth every penny.
When the trial launched, reporters came from around the world, as well as across Canada. And our strategy, thankfully, worked. Even the likes of Fox News and CNN used our beta-roll footage, and framed their stories pretty much as we had. Some networks quoted critics of NAOMI; but TV news (the most influential medium for NAOMI) is largely driven by images, and our visual narrative was fresher, sturdier and -- with our handy beta-roll footage -- easier to tell than that of our opponents.
As result, NAOMI got off to a smooth start, enjoyed a good press, and public support. This helped investigators later endure active opposition from a newly elected Conservative federal government. The trial ultimately demonstrated the value of medically prescribed heroin, and spawned a second trial, SALOME, which is testing the value of another promising opioid medication, hydromorphone. The crisitunity triggered by a Christian pastor thus played in the favour of promising new methods of harm reduction.