From the Grassroots Professional Network LinkedIn page:
COVID-19 suddenly canceled the conference and fly-in plans for advocacy organizations across the country. Unsurprisingly, many are looking to virtual and remote options to facilitate engagement between their stakeholders and policymakers. While it may be hard to see the silver lining to this crisis, establishing a virtual or remote advocacy presence for your program has long been considered a best practice, even if it wasn’t a priority until now.
As you are aware, shutting Congress off to the public has happened in the past and it’s likely to happen for some unforeseen reason in the future. When letters containing the bacterium anthrax arrived at the DC offices of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and former Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) in October 2001, multiple Capitol Hill buildings closed for decontamination. The Dirksen, Hart, and Russell Senate Office Buildings and Ford and Longworth House Office Buildings weren’t cleared for entry until the end of January 2002, three months later!
There are other reasons that supporters, activists and members of various organizations cannot visit DC for a fly-in. Their constituencies may have physical or cognitive impairments that make travel challenging. Or, perhaps airfare and hotel rates during fly-in season are cost prohibitive. Despite such limitations, these organizations find ways to engage their advocates successfully, year in and year out.
Here are several proven advocacy tactics for reaching lawmakers from afar that your organization may want to consider. Afterall, engaging your advocates in a range of activities is an insurance policy for the unanticipated.
Return to Email
Many have been quick to declare the decline of advocacy emails as an effective tactic to reach policymakers, but in this remote environment, matched-to-district constituent emails are experiencing a resurgence. It’s an easy first action for advocates stuck at home.
While this may be new to your community, take comfort in the fact that many constituent advocacy groups have run successful virtual fly-ins for years, mainly to accommodate stakeholders who can’t easily travel. Schedule your meetings like you would for an in-person fly-in but ask the office for either a conference call or video chat appointment.
To assist your supporters in preparation for their meetings, utilize virtual training sessions leading up to the fly-in and consider hosting ‘virtual advocacy team office hours’ during the event. This gives additional opportunities for participants to ask questions of your team or report back on their meetings. You may even want to try a ‘virtual reception’ where everyone can join online to celebrate the conclusion of the fly-in.
In keeping with the tactics shared above, telephone town halls aren’t new to the advocacy industry. There are several vendors who can set-up large scale ‘tele-townhalls’ for thousands of participants. Callers can ask questions in a moderated forum and are often directed to connect with a lawmaker’s office via a patch-through either during or following the call.
Letters to the Editor
Much like constituent emails, letters to the editor don’t get the love they deserve from some advocacy programs. But please don’t overlook this option when pivoting to more remote efforts. Media consumption has skyrocketed these past few weeks and letters to the editor provide an excellent opportunity for advocates to advance your key positions. As always, providing talking points and training to assist letter writers in making the best case for your cause.
Social Media Advocacy Challenge
With inspiration from the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge, try issuing an advocacy challenge to your supporters – perhaps having them announce their participation in your effort by posting a branded photo or image to share with their networks on social media. As part of the challenge, provide a hashtag and ask them to tag three others who they think should also participate.
Branding Social Media Profile Pictures and GIPHY Stickers
In the same vein, asking stakeholders to change their Facebook or other social media profile pictures corresponding to a specific day or event has been popular with many groups. Other options include the creation of custom GIPHY stickers for use on Instagram or Snapchat stories. It makes the visual branding of social media stories easy and fun for your group and these visual assets can also then be repurposed beyond the event.
Online Resource Hubs
Online resources and toolkits provide a one-stop-shop for supporters and allied groups to pull your approved content to use on their social channels or other web properties as needed. Consider including sample social media messages, talking points, scripts for meeting requests, media releases, web stickers/graphics, videos, etc. Don’t forget to update this content on a regular basis.
Virtual Training and Webinars
Since the crisis began, the most popular request from clients is for help to produce virtual training and webinar content. For a quick turnaround, try a podcast or streaming video session. If you have more time, consider developing a virtual advocate training certification program (outlined below under ‘Advocacy Academies’). There are numerous highly-rated ‘Learning Management Systems’ available to produce interactive modules which include quizzes to verify completion. Alternatively, you can create a guided PowerPoint presentation or screen capture with voiceover to demonstrate how to use your organization’s advocacy tools or to outline best practices for grasstops engagement.
Policy Briefing Newsletters, Podcasts, and Videos
Many PAC clients already offer PAC members exclusive access to policy and election newsletters, podcasts, and video briefings either via internal experts or by contracting with external providers like The Cook Political Report. It may be worth expanding those briefings to a broader audience during this time.
Virtual Site Tours and 360-Degree Videos
A virtual site tour is an alternative to inviting a Member of Congress or their staff to visit an industry facility. While not all organizations will have active locations during this crisis, some groups may have important stories to tell about what is happening in select places. While a delegation visit isn’t likely appropriate, a 360-degree video can help put virtual visitors in the middle of the action. Even a standard video or photos can help provide lawmakers with much-needed context.
Many supporters want to share their stories in a customized letter but either they don’t have time or aren’t confident in their abilities. Letter desking is similar to a phone canvass where select supporters answer questions in a short interview to flesh-out the best elements of their personal story. This story is combined with pre-written talking points and then sent back to the advocate for approval. If they like what they read, they are asked to send it on to their elected representatives.
Constituent Video Testimonials
Capturing video testimonials from advocates is now a fairly common practice. We often advise clients to set-up a quiet place during fly-ins and conferences to collect stories on video from attendees. While that option isn’t available right now, many advocates are learning how to use video chat as part of the new normal. Try leveraging this experience by asking them to record messages that you can use in your program. These can then be sent to lawmakers, shared on social media, added to a story map on your site, or held on file for future use. As with many of the tactics above, it helps to provide supporters with examples, training/logistical options, and talking points to improve their video.
An expansion on virtual training, an advocacy academy offers supporters a certification and training program to progress them up the advocacy involvement staircase, strengthening their skill-sets. Topics could include how to research a lawmaker’s issue stance, proper message framing, and methods for building long-term rapport with legislators and their staffs.
Online Grasstops and Key Contact Networks
Use online tools to assemble hand-selected volunteers dispersed nationwide responsible for building relationships with targeted legislative offices. These advocates extend your enterprise’s reach, ensure that in-district engagement continually occurs, serve as an experienced, local resource to supporters, provide your organization with feedback on activities in the field, and can often more effectively enlist supporters via peer-to-peer activation. Additionally, grasstops activists become seasoned veteran advocates you can rely upon to coordinate and spearhead many of the tactics noted above.
If you have utilized any of these virtual or remote tactics successfully or are planning to give them a try over the next few months please add your feedback. We’d also welcome other virtual advocacy ideas that groups can adapt.
Matthew Zablud (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Partner at Beekeeper Group, an award-winning agency specializing in communications, advocacy, and digital marketing for associations, corporations, and nonprofits.
David Lusk (email@example.com), the founder of Key Advocacy, has created advanced advocacy programs receiving national recognition and conducts advocate training for fly-ins and in-district engagement.