All photos by Jamie Rand Imaging unless otherwise specified.
Last month, Seattle Womxn’s March exceeded all attendance expectations and its political impact continues to reverberate locally and nationally. One key person behind the protest’s record-breaking success is organizer and Comm Lead alumna Liz Hunter-Keller.
Unable to attend the main event in Washington D.C., Hunter-Keller itched to channel her post-election malaise into some sort of tangible action. She enlisted fellow new mom and alumna Betsy Hauenstein, and the two joined the fledgling effort to bring the March to Seattle. What began as basic volunteering in November soon evolved into a full-on head of communications role for Hunter-Keller.
“She tried super hard to only assist with a press release here and there, but she couldn’t help but step in with her skill set, her experience, and her passion,” observed Hauenstein. “It was remarkable to work with Liz and watch her power through an INTENSE two months.”
We caught up with Hunter-Keller to ask what it takes to organize thousands, how to navigate today’s media landscape, and what Comm Lead skills are necessary to do it.
[Q] How did you become involved with the organization of Seattle Womxn’s March?
I started out as the Co-Chair of the Travel Committee, one of about a dozen committees that made up the prinicipal organizing team. We were tasked with identifying a group of people from the volunteer pool and coming up with our own plan of action for hotel discounts, flight discounts, carpools, homestays, Ubers, Lyfts, taxi discounts, etc.
In early December, the chairs of the communications committee quit. The remaining committee members were managing a rapidly growing social media presence and a steady stream of news media requests. None of them were communications professionals.
By then we had over 30,000 people looking to us for information and we were weeks away from the march. What was I supposed to do? I took over as chair of PR.
[Q] How did you apply the skills you learned in Comm Lead to the role?
Some MCDM wisdom that proved useful: I dug into our social audience to identify influencers and ensure they had the correct information so they could correct rumors and share essentials. (Former Comm Lead faculty) Kathy Gill was my favorite influencer! We tried to use some best practices for social media and community management within the communications team, like responding to questions rapidly using two or three different Womxn’s March organizer profiles and using shareable graphics to convey important information.
[Q] How did the March come to exceed attendance expectations? What do you think contributed to that success?
We used Facebook RSVPs and an Eventbrite to ascertain an approximate number. At the first co-chair meeting, someone said “plan for a million.” We laughed it off.
In the week prior to the march, that number was—at its highest—40,000 on Facebook and 13,000 on the Eventbrite. Everyone who works with FB invites on a regular basis knows you never expect the number of people who RSVP to actually show up.
Except this time it was the opposite! In retrospect, we did not account for everyone bringing their families. Data from Facebook events is pretty severely limited, and we were extra limited because we were working with an Event, not a Page. So we missed out on lots of data from Insights.
Part of our mission was to connect our attendees with social justice and nonprofit organizations to continue the momentum. We had a robust Outreach committee who contacted and collaborated with almost 200 local and regional organizations. Each organization brought an average of 36 people (and the organizations that responded to our survey credited generous marchers with over $23k in donations!).
Why did so many people come though? From a communications standpoint, we did proactive media relations and intensive social media management. We had a strong mission and talking points and we tried to answer every question on Facebook. I like to think this helped spread the word. But I wouldn’t credit social media for the success of this movement. For every person we connected with on social media, there were two more who showed up through word of mouth.
And we all know why they came. This march was a boiling point. One pervasive newsfeed sentiment was—wow—look at all these first time activists. Look at all these people who have been inspired to rise up and raise voices. Breathtaking.
But we also heard from people who have been literally fighting for their lives long before this election jarred people into activism. People of color, trans and queer people, people with disabilities—this isn’t new for them. So the march deserves its place in history perhaps more as the point when privileged people finally decided to go all in for human rights.
In the meantime, the national team has been pursuing this swell of activism with 10 Actions/100 Days. The Seattle Womxn’s March team will likely support these efforts and coalesce around a few specific endeavors as well.
[Q] What is your take on the state of effective communication today?
I doubt anyone reading this thinks the current state of mass communication is healthy. Most professional communicators, whether PR people, storytellers, journalists or filmmakers, know the deep, complex, systemic challenges we face. Digital illiteracy. A lack of diversity in who is actually telling stories, reporting news. A lack of resources for journalism. The 24-hour news cycle. Fake news that spreads rapidly on social media. A total breakdown of communication between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Sometimes it is overwhelming; sometimes I wonder how we communicate at all.
I’m following a scholar/journalist on Twitter right now named Sarah Kendzior. She lives in St. Louis and her latest collection of essays, A View from Flyover Country, is the recipe from which Trump was baked. If you haven’t read it, download it immediately (I would lend you mine, but I insist you pay her for her work. It’s not easy being a journalist in St. Louis.) She offers powerful insight into why we are where we are today. You have probably heard of food deserts—neighborhoods and regions where fresh food is scarce—Kenzior points out that we have a journalism desert outside of the major cities in this country. When local newspapers cannot afford to pay a thriving staff, cable news becomes the only source.
I know this is heretical, but I also believe social media is now hurting us more than it’s helping us. It has become too easy to forget that the person on the other end of your comment is human. Most of us would never shout at our neighbors the way we shout on social. We curate our news intake so precisely that any dissent seems like an affront; the lack of empathy, of nuance, of understanding means we unleash more anger than we should.
I don’t know what to do about it except be vigilant about how we interact online. Be kind as much as you can. And don’t feed the trolls.
Liz Hunter-Keller (Cohort 10!) graduated from the MCDM in 2012. She is a communications and digital media professional who has worked at the University of Washington for the past four years. She is a member of Seattle’s best and only art bus tour, COLLECT Seattle, the Junior League of Seattle, and the burgeoning Womxn’s March movement. Liz is a NJ native, but lives happily in Ballard with her husband, baby, and tiny dog Clyde.
Connect with Liz on LinkedIn.