The recent plight of the Musqueam Indian Band illustrates the importance of a determined and focused communications strategy.
The Musqueam Indian Band recently fought a six-week PR battle to preserve their former village and burial site from development as condo residences. Their ultimate success offers clear lessons for business owners faced with a crisis: develop a written strategy identifying audiences and goals, and execute that strategy, pronto.
In this case, the Musqueam had an internal point person in charge of communications activities working together with an external consultant. Their strategy included key messages the band wanted to communicate to their target audience — the provincial government — and outlined a variety of interview and photo opportunities for a wide range of media.
Known locally as the Marpole Midden, the land next to SW Marine Drive in Vancouver has been privately owned for 50 years, and the owners had a development permit to build a five-storey condo project as well as excavate for underground parking. Development would have continued on the site if excavators hadn’t unearthed two intact infant skeletons along with an adult skeleton this spring.
Part of the Musqueam’s problem was that most Vancouverites knew the midden as the site of the Fraser Arms Hotel and a miscellany of car dealerships — not a National Heritage Site since 1933, acknowledged as one of the most important First Nations village sites in Canada.
The Musqueam decided to make preservation a priority and contacted my firm to develop a communications strategy. They knew that if they didn’t speak up, development would continue, and their chance to save the site would disappear under slabs of cement.
Media releases and communications delivered a series of compelling messages to be broadcast at every interview opportunity. The Musqueam started the media coverage rolling with a protest that was attended by most media outlets in Metro Vancouver. Because it was their protest and not from politicians or the developers, it was their story the media told and repeated.
The Musqueam kept up the attention and pressure with letters to the editor, targeted pitches to influential reporters and editors and interviews where they told their story of what the site meant to them, and how its imminent destruction contributed to the further destruction of their culture and identity.
Musqueam even created a new Facebook page and started a Twitter presence to organize supporters, post images of the protest and provide updates to community and media.
Their messages were hard to resist; who could argue against people wishing to preserve the graves of their ancestors from the construction of a parking garage? Audiences recognized their pleas as earnest and sincere — qualities not always present in media spokespeople today.
Their peaceful protests successfully delivered the message of what the midden meant to them and why, and won them supporters.
Initially, the provincial government didn’t want to step in, possibly desiring to avoid legal headaches and lawsuits. But in the face of the Musqueam’s earnest wish and ongoing determination, the province sent a mediator to the table. Finally, Victoria became convinced that their best move was to find a mutually agreeable solution to save the site. That’s the path all parties are now on, and it could result in a park and interpretive centre at the entrance to Vancouver. If the Musqueam hadn’t been so committed to communication, their paradise could have been paved with yet another parking lot.