Every public affairs team conducts rapid response at some point, forced to react quickly to a vote, a statement, an executive order, a bill introduction or other government act. But the experience can vary dramatically.
At some organizations, it is a serious fire drill and the results are unsatisfactory. An unsegmented list makes it difficult to target the right people and personalize messaging. Cold emails to supporters who haven’t heard from you recently get deleted or ignored. The result is mobilization that lags, a weak voice on issues, and no change in policy.
Then there are those that practice “always on” advocacy. These organizations have messaging ready to go. They are consistently educating their audience on the issues—even when it’s stagnant in the legislature. Their email list is warm and segmented, so they can target supporters who will respond enthusiastically. In short, they have done the work in advance, taking advantage of times when the action slows, and they are ready to launch when the time arises.
“Always on” advocacy is a philosophy that emphasizes readiness, and not just for the next rapid-response drill. It is a year-round, long-term approach designed to make sure your organization is constantly improving its advocacy program; creating a deeper connection with your audience; keeping email lists warm; and adopting the latest advocacy technology. In short, it ensures your organization is capable of launching a strong grassroots response on command.
Here are some actions that organizations take to develop a strong “always on advocacy” program. To see how your team stacks up, answer these questions:
Do You Educate Supporters All Year Long?
Sophisticated teams maintain a steady flow of communication designed to explain issues and why they matter, even when there is no immediate ask. Materials can be as simple as a short video or an email with “5 things you need to know,” or they can be more advanced, like a position paper. This type of education will create a greater pull when you do launch a call to action. It can also keep your list warm if you send it regularly.
Education looks different in every organization, and some have created sophisticated programs. For example, the American Society of Anesthesiologists has created a series of video modules that explain how the government works and how to conduct effective advocacy. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers created a website with education materials, rolled it out using their grasstops ambassadors and then rewarded advocates for participating, using a point system and prizes. The result: 79 percent reported learning more about the industry’s policy priorities and 93 percent said that they better understood the issues.
While education programs are often aimed at the most active supporters, organizations can create educational tracks for advocates at every level. Newer advocates or those less involved might get educated on a single issue, while those with more experience or enthusiasm get advanced materials.
Do You Have an Evergreen Acquisition Strategy?
A list that is not growing is almost certainly shrinking, as advocates move, change jobs, or otherwise disengage. Savvy teams have a year-round strategy for advocate acquisition. Every organization should always be looking to grow its grassroots support using multiple channels. A strong advocacy program needs a list of enthusiastic supporters who are willing to take action. The bigger your list, the more of these supporters you are likely to have.
Events that offer education or other content, whether virtual or in-person, are a solid way to attract new supporters because they offer something of value, such as learning or community, and don’t simply ask for support. Text messaging with shortcodes (e.g. text “action” to 12345) has the advantage of getting beyond the digital world. One advocacy organization put its shortcode on a billboard in New York’s Times Square, but you could also put it on a bus stop or a poster.
The tactics used will be different at every organization. What’s important is that you have an acquisition strategy that can be used throughout the year, including times when there is no burning issue to get people motivated to support your organization.
Do You Create Messaging in Advance?
One thing every team can do is create messaging on an issue in advance, and then get that language approved by leadership. That might include:
- A description of your position on an issue
- Talking points you want to convey
- Statements from credible figures in your organization, such as the CEO, the executive director or a subject matter expert
- Email and landing pages
- Press releases and statements
No organization can predict every situation, but having basic materials ready can really help ensure your team is prepared when advocacy needs arise.
Do You Practice List Segmentation?
Segmenting advocates into groups—by state, issue, level of activity, or other differentiators—allows your program to enhance targeting and take a more personalized approach. The more you connect with advocates personally, the more likely they are to take action.
Expedia, for example, segments its list in many different ways when it calls on supporters to get active. It segments by geography, and then it also identifies the most active advocates within that locale. These motivated supporters—some call them “super advocates”—often take action at a much higher rate.
Your program can use time when things are slower to think through how to segment your list for maximum impact and then carry out that plan—before you have immediate needs.
Do You Maintain a Well-Stocked Story Bank?
Officials often use personal stories from constituents to justify and explain their positions. There’s a reason so many floor speeches contain a reference to someone back home in the district: lawmakers need to tell real, human stories—and your organization can provide them.
By getting your advocates to tell their stories, your organization can develop a bank of these assets to save for the right moment. That could be in a meeting between your lobbyist and a lawmaker, in a digital campaign, or in an earned media opportunity. Data and arguments are important, but personal stories win hearts and minds.
The National Restaurant Association made great use of personal stories when the industry was threatened by pandemic-related restaurant closures and it needed help from Congress. As part of a massive advocacy effort, the association solicited personal stories from its members, allowing restaurant owners, servers, chefs, line cooks, and others to explain in their own words what was happening to them. The association’s supporters ultimately sent hundreds of thousands of messages to Congress, which created the Restaurant Revitalization Fund to deliver tens of billions of dollars to ailing restaurants and took other actions to help the industry.
Do You Recruit and Train Grasstops Advocates?
Many organizations recruit advocates to take action that goes beyond standard email and phone call outreach, whether that means interacting with media or meeting in person with public officials. Sometimes known as ambassadors or “grasstops” advocates, these supporters often receive special training and recognition.
Building a grasstops program is an ideal “always on” activity because it can begin with a modest effort, such as gathering a group of supporters on a call at a time when things are slow. It can then be developed throughout the year and phased into use as the advocates get educated, trained, and confident. Using downtime to build an ambassador program makes your organization stronger when the time comes to get active
Candidates for grasstops advocates may be the heads of your state or local chapters, your most active volunteers in each locale, or they may be “super advocates” who take action every time they are asked.
The American Farm Bureau Federation makes great use of grasstops advocacy. The organization has affiliates in all 50 states and roughly 2,800 counties, allowing them to assemble a group of about 400 volunteer leaders who stand ready to get active when needed. Training in the form of two-day seminars takes place several times a year, showing members how to handle media interviews, use video and develop relationships with members of Congress. The Farm Bureau also gives these advocates their own Facebook page, access to briefings, and other special benefits.
The effort has paid off. For example, when the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed disclosure regulations the organization thought might be hard on farms, it activated its grasstops leaders and its membership, sending more than 10,000 messages to the SEC and members of Congress. The SEC later said publicly that the regulations would not target farmers.
There are many other components that can help build an always-on program. For example, media monitoring, social listening and legislative tracking are not required to create always-on advocacy, but they can certainly help. Early warning systems ensure that your organization has a full view of the political landscape, and that type of intelligence enhances readiness.
Teams practicing “always on” advocacy are making use of the time when action in Congress and the states slows to advance their capabilities. They are boosting acquisition, educating supporters, building a story bank and developing a grasstops program. In short, they are always engaged in preparation and improvement. In a world where advocacy takes place year-round, smart teams are always on—and that helps win policy battles.