It seems like our COVID-19-induced isolation will never end. But the legislature is quickly ramping-up to address the crisis and our recovery. Legislators’ decisions are sure to have ripple effects across the rest of the budget–and every other issue–for years to come.
You can expect the decision making to be rushed and the implications of those decisions to be profound. What we don’t know is exactly where all of these decisions will be made. Will meetings continue to be coordinated remotely? When, and for how long, will legislators return to Raleigh?
These momentous decisions will likely be made by legislators spread across the state. In this unpredictable environment, those with advocates or members spread across the state will be much better positioned to deliver public affairs messages.
There is good news: Even if you’ve never invested a dime in advocacy, you can catch-up quickly without busting your budget. Follow the three steps below to get started.
If you have questions about these steps, or if you need help building your advocacy program, we are donating our time to help organizations think through their approach. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will schedule an hour to discuss your challenge.
Step 1: Prepare your advocates while they are paying attention
Everyone is spending more time in front of their devices now. And people typically pay more attention to trusted sources of information. These are big advantages for generating advocacy activity. But, be sure that your tone and approach match the times in which we’re living. Everyone is feeling more stress.
Start by writing a brief email that explains your public affairs strategy for navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Describe the tough choices elected officials face. Connect those choices to what’s at stake for your organization. Remind them that timely constituent communications will make the difference.
You shouldn’t feel like you’re manufacturing urgency. If you are, it probably makes sense to hold your communication for a better time.
Just as important, get an idea of who is willing to do what to help deliver your message. Create a brief survey—for free on SurveyMonkey—that asks just a few basic questions:
- Which of our issues are you most interested in?
- Which advocacy activities do you most enjoy?
- How much time can you contribute?
- Which legislators do you know?
The answers to these basic questions will provide immediate direction. You now know who you can mobilize to do what—and you can do it more efficiently.
2. Grow your audience
Every organization experiences some level of advocate turnover or burnout. Others might be starting from zero. Or, maybe your survey shows that you don’t have as many advocates as you need in a critical district.
If you need to recruit more advocates, you have some options to get started.
Again, be mindful of the communications environment. Most of the online conversation is focused on COVID-19. Take time to explain how your issue relates. If your issue isn’t directly related to COVID-19, but it’s important for you to begin building support, make sure your communication still acknowledges the situation. And, make sure it’s tightly targeted to your core audience. As the legislature begins to work on a broader range of issues and the media begins to cover it, your audience will be easier to engage.
- Take what you can from free social media. Though your Facebook posts will only reach a sliver of your existing audience, encourage people to join your email list. Advocacy response rates via email are substantially higher than on Facebook (or any other social platform, for that matter).
- Invest in paid social media. Facebook ads are designed for small budgets. Depending on your target zip codes, a few hundred dollars may be all you need to find enough advocates. Especially in this environment, start small, test your approach, and make adjustments. Not sure how to get started? Use this guide.
- Launch a paid petition. If your organization’s issue would fit with the Care2 community, launch a petition and find supporters. Care2 will promote it in your targeted area and deliver you new supporters for only about $2.50 each. They typically have a $5,000 campaign minimum, though.
As you build your list, welcome new advocates to your organization and launch the communications from Step 1. Track your results and take note of who’s more engaged with your content.
Be ready to go when your list starts to grow!
Step 3: Master the mobilization basics. Then get creative to stand out!
You’ve built your advocate audience. You’ve engaged them with communications and prepared them for the challenge ahead. Now you’re ready to start talking to legislators.
Remember, the ultimate goal of your legislator communication is to build a connection. Communicating remotely doesn’t change that.
Get started by using your advocacy CRM to set-up digital campaigns that engage your advocates. (Remember, the caveat from Step 2 still applies.) Start with tactics like:
- Sending emails. Think of emails as an awareness-raising tactic. They can help get your issue on the radar.
- Making phone calls. Calls usually work best if you can generate a larger volume in a short period of time. If you’re leaving voicemails for legislators, that’s fine.
- Signing petitions. If a legislator isn’t tracking their email volume, they won’t understand just how many voters are paying attention to your issue. An online petition can change that. Pro tip: Ask your petition signers to include a 1-2 sentence reason why they support the issue. Then mail the petition to legislators’ offices.
(If you don’t have an advocacy CRM to help coordinate these activities, don’t panic. You can find one that does all of these things and fits your budget. We can help you quickly work through that decision.)
With every organization adapting to our remote reality, many will be using (or overusing) these digital channels. And that will be on top of all of the constituents reaching out to offices to help them understand the state’s COVID-19-related policies. Mobilizing only to generate a large volume of electronic communication won’t help you.
To stand out, you need to take the next step.
Use these digital communications to help you find more engaged advocates who will be willing to communicate with legislators in the more personal ways that build connection—and help your message stand out. These tactics include:
- Printing and mailing letters. Postal mail is largely ignored. But elected officials notice it, so it’s an effective channel your organization can own. You can write letter templates, email them to your advocates for them to personalize, and provide them instructions for where to mail it. Or, there are firms like ours that can help you organize phone calls to your advocates to collect their stories, help them write their letters, and provide them mailing materials. Though this requires some budget, it also significantly increases the number of letters that reach legislators’ offices.
- Organizing Zoom meetings. Every survey of elected officials says the same thing: Meetings are the most effective form of advocate communication. Period. The meeting’s core value is the detailed conversation; the opportunity for a constituent to tell a more compelling story. A Zoom meeting still delivers all of this value. (Be aware of some of Zoom’s potential security issues, though.)
Work with your advocates to schedule half-hour Zoom meetings. That gives them the time to tell their story and it offers you the opportunity to reinforce your organization’s key messages. If internet access (or bandwidth) is a challenge in your area, set-up the meetings using Zoom’s conference call feature.
And, to make this tactic even more attractive, Zoom costs just a few hundred dollars per year.
If you’ve already mastered these remote mobilization channels, get creative! Execute your Lobby Day remotely with a combination of emails, calls, and Zoom meetings. Invite legislators to an online speaker series where an issue expert can deliver your key messages and engage them in a Q&A. Invite your advocates to record a short video (30 seconds-1 minute) about how your issue impacts their life and email them to legislators. (We’ll expand on some of these more advanced ideas in our next post.)
Our post-COVID-19 reality will reward those organizations that can quickly reach legislators wherever they are. Every organization—even those without an advocacy program or large budgets can take advantage.
Though it’s difficult, you need to start thinking about it now.
Again, if you have questions, or if we can help you with any aspect of your advocacy program, email me at email@example.com and I’ll schedule a time to discuss.