Federation Square Rally

How to take on a trillion-dollar corporation - and win

By Brett de Hoedt, Hootville Communications

My buttons are easy to find, and the December 20, 2017 announcement that Apple would build a superstore in Melbourne's Federation Square pushed all of them - quiz show style. Precious public space being gifted to a private megacorporation, without consultation, in a secret deal presented to the public as a win for the city? I was angry and it was time to get organised. (Spoiler alert: we won.)

It started with a Change.org petition.

I'd signed and shared my share of petitions but always thought of them as a tactic of last resort. I went to Change.org to sign the inevitable Federation Square petition but I couldn't find one so I reluctantly started my own - and it grew like topsy. It was exciting. I used my databases and a little money to accelerate it. Here's a blog post about growing your petition.

So far so good. I would ride this wave to success and receive an Order of Australia.

Then I made some big mistakes, and a few small ones. Here's what I learned from them.

Campaigns take chutzpah

I should have announced a short-notice public gathering at Federation Square to tap into public anger, secure media coverage and start the job of getting people's email addresses and donations. The petition would have been upgraded into a true campaign. But a gathering takes chutzpah, a PA system, public liability insurance and a willingness to cross swords with Federation Square security - all of which I lacked.

Instead I nursed the petition, and connected up with some like-minded souls and people who'd started their own similar petition. In January 2018, six strangers gathered at my home to map out a campaign. I quickly realised what a smart, connected, serious bunch they were and took a dislike to them accordingly. Our City, Our Square was born.

Unless you're a striking elf, don't count on support at Christmas

I'd thought that the 30,000 combined signatories would get onboard the campaign, sign our submissions, donate their cash and give us their email addresses, but by the time we launched in February 2018 many had lost interest. Anger is a fruitful emotion for campaigners to tap into, but it is fleeting - especially over Christmas. Our conversion rate from petition signer to ongoing supporter was low.

These things can take over your life

Dozens of meetings, hundreds of phone calls and thousands of emails later, we were still fighting. We'd garnered media coverage all over, from Sunrise to The Guardian, facilitated record-breaking numbers of submissions to City of Melbourne and Heritage Victoria, funded a street poster campaign, launched an audacious $40 million crowdfunding campaign, participated in debates, staged rallies, assessed political candidates, run tours of Federation Square, raised thousands of dollars and whispered in every possible sympathetic ear. We'd made major submissions to authorities, launched a line of merchandise, gained a grip on planning and heritage issues, and tried to stoke the fires burning in our supporters' bellies.

Our band of volunteers, most of them self-employed, committed 20 hours or more to the project each week. And then there were the weeks of 100 hours plus.

Don't overestimate the hipsters

Federation Square belongs to everybody… and nobody. Melbourne CBD residents are overwhelmingly recent and transient. Few got involved in the campaign. The support of the arts community, architects and hipster brigade left me… underwhelmed. If the Apple store had been the brainchild of a conservative government, I daresay we'd have enjoyed more support. Major business and retail groups that should have been furious with the government's blatant favouritism also refused to take up the issue. (Cowards!)

I tried but failed to enlist the support of the owner of the biggest petition - a young chap who amassed 50,000 signatures.

Software: keep it simple

We selected Nation Builder as our campaign software. This was surplus to requirements. We now use a SquareSpace website and MailChimp. Simple, effective, attractive.

Energy expenditure: keep it proportional

We devoted a LOT of time and energy to some initiatives with low return. Did we really need to create a cool online shop or issue how-to-vote information? Oh well - that's showbiz.

Teamwork: it's vital

As a not-for-profit communications professional I thought I had all the answers. Second spoiler alert: I didn't.

I've realised that a varied team is vital. I could have moved more quickly alone, especially in the early stages, but there's no chance I could have brought the range of skills, energy and connections of my colleagues. People skills are paramount. At one low point in the campaign I called our president, Tania Davidge, to resign - and 20 minutes later I was still volunteering and had taken on additional responsibilities. How did that happen?

Spoon-feed. Thank. Repeat.

This campaign was long and complicated - multiple submissions, petitions and heritage hearings need a lot of explanation and participation. Along the way, some people thought we'd already won, and others assumed we'd already lost. One needs to guide people through the process, step by step.

Campaigns need depth and breadth

The campaign went far beyond the digital and media world, which was a surprise to me. My colleagues spent hours with experts in planning, heritage, politics and the law. This broadened our influence and knowledge but it was slower, less rewarding work and sometimes gave the impression of a dormant campaign. However, it was vital in reversing a major government initiative.

But I had a dream

In the end, we successfully thwarted the wishes of a trillion-dollar behemoth and a popular state government. That's the sort of win I used to daydream about. Read more at www.ourcityoursquare.org

Brett de Hoedt promises to teach you how to use communications for good not evil via his agency Hootville Communications. His free eBook Media Savvy shows you how to grab your share of the media spotlight - Our Community is launching it on May 6. In the same week, join Brett for a free webinar (May 8) that will show you how to create a harder working, more effective website. All these events and more are happening as part of Communicating with Clout Week, an initiatve of the Festival of Community Directors. Download the festival program here (PDF).

This article is taken from
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