In every association, teams are expected to report on progress and show return on investment. Membership, events, education, training and almost every other department all have key performance indicators. It’s how those units talk to leadership and demonstrate value.
The same rules apply to government affairs teams. The metrics are different—sometimes less understood—but explaining your strategy, challenges and performance is a vital part of sustaining a healthy program. In order to draw resources and grow your department, reporting the value of your work is essential.
Indeed, the work of an association’s public affairs team can help the entire organization. It can show value to members, increasing recruitment and retention. It can get members excited about the industry, filling events to capacity (physical or virtual). It can connect members with your mission, generate strong policy changes and advance your industry.
Yet many public affairs professionals face challenges and struggle with presenting their program’s results. In Capitol Canary’s 2019 Advocacy Survey, one in three advocacy professionals (34%) said communicating the value of their program is a challenge and almost half (45%) said they could use help in that effort. Significantly, almost two in 10 (16%) also said they need more internal support from leadership, which highlights the importance of communicating value in order to receive resources. “Communicating value is important, but it’s not always easy,” said Jeb Ory, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Capitol Canary (acquired by Quorum). “Public Affairs does not always have easily
understood metrics like membership renewals or participation in industry training. Often, you have to educate your key stakeholders on what metrics are critical to communicate value. That’s a campaign all its own—an internal campaign.”
The truth is that it’s not enough for members of your team to agree on a vision. To gain support throughout your association, your leadership and member board must buy into that vision, too. Articulating your mission clearly, defining the metrics for success, and communicating progress takes more than a memo. You need a program designed to generate true investment from the SVP’s, the executive director, or the board that controls your budget.
Creating a Common Language
To get leadership invested in your efforts, communicating progress regularly— positive and negative—is essential, along with the context that explains that performance. In order to do that, your team and your leadership need to have agreed-upon goals and speak the same language.
This starts with a series of discussions designed to align your stakeholders around a common understanding of the policy landscape and your association goals for the coming year.
Some will be obvious and well known. Others, less so. What’s important for this to succeed is that everyone must understand how goals will be met, the timeline and how progress will be measured. Across these meetings, you can address several key elements:
- Define Success. Successfully communicating value means operating from a common set of goals. Your team’s definition of success must match that of leadership (and vice versa) so that the playing field remains level as your team executes its program. Come to a common understanding of what your company would consider a successful year.
- Agree on the Right Metrics. You must also agree on how that success will be measured. Be realistic about what leadership needs to see and what you can deliver. The metrics your company uses should reflect its end-goals. If the mission is to move people to action, then list growth, engagement, and activity are the metrics that matter most. Shares, likes, opens, and clicks are all important, but they can be weak tea when matched against the expense of running a program. There are better measures of success when it comes to showing ROI. Many associations can track the influence of public affairs on membership. Tracking who is active, how often and on what campaigns, helps you to identify where you are engaging members and which accounts need work. Remember that advocates who contact elected officials will likely hear back from them, which gives your organization a boost. Engage your advocates, help shape policy, and increase retention. That’s a good story to tell, but you have to use the right metrics to see it.
- Set Expectations. Discussing success and how to measure it should coalesce into a set of expectations. Making sure these are realistic is the foundation of a successful program. Over-promising to maintain a program or to obtain resources is almost always a mistake. Giving leadership a true picture of the opportunities and challenges is a better path, but it requires a strategic approach that communicates both the value of your public affairs program and the challenges it must overcome.
To see how this all works in practice, let’s take the case of the American Nurses Association, which represents registered nurses. As the COVID-19 crisis broke, the association set out to call attention to the plight of nurses and call for additional funding for personal protective equipment (PPE). It launched a campaign, asking its members to contact Congress and the administration. It used the hashtag #GetMePPE. The association actively granted media interviews and it kept members updated through a blog and other channels.
In a matter of weeks, the teams that executed the association’s campaigns had a good story to tell. More than 350,000 messages were sent to elected officials and the $2 trillion stimulus bill containing hundreds of millions of dollars for protective gear was passed by Congress. Association officials appeared on NBC, CNN and other news outlets. “ANA continues to stand with nurses who are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic,” the organization said in a statement. And they did. They launched another campaign calling for protective gear, this time urging passage of the Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act. “Lives of frontline providers are still not protected,” the campaign says. “RNs continue experiencing vital shortages in personal protective equipment.”
While the American Nurses Association campaigns were reactive in nature—they were responding to a crisis—there’s no reason that your organization cannot be planning its action moving forward. So, take your meetings, layout goals, define success, agree on metrics and set expectations. After each meeting, send around a memo that summarizes the discussion and the decisions made. This will codify and reinforce your efforts to align your team with your executives. The next—and maybe most important—step will be to communicate your progress regularly.
Creating a Reporting Program
Regular reporting is a powerful tool. Done correctly, it can keep leadership invested and your team accountable. Unfortunately, this kind of reporting often devolves into disjointed arguments cobbled together from whatever statistics make a team look good in the moment.
That type of reporting erodes credibility and can do long-term damage. However, if your team and its leadership are aligned on what constitutes success and how to measure it, reports can be highly credible dispatches that truly communicate value.
Reporting should be a mixture of short updates and deeper dives. For example, you can report progress monthly in an easy-to-read email dispatch with links to get more data. During important campaigns, you can step that up to weekly or even daily. Bi-annual reports can step back and show important trends, such as growth in your membership list; new individuals on your advocate list who belong to organizations who are not yet members; and, of course, the amount of advocacy action, like messages sent, calls made and campaigns launched.
Annual reports can be more strategic in nature, recapping performance and setting goals for the year ahead. Annual reports can be more strategic in nature, recapping performance and setting goals for the year ahead.
Of course, there is more to showing ROI than charts and memos. Sophisticated teams communicate their expertise as they communicate results, and generate excitement around the work they are conducting. Here are some suggestions:
- Develop a Voice. Your association culture will dictate how you present information and every organization is different. But there is room to develop a voice for your team. Reports should not be boring. You can create an update that people want to read.
- Tell a Story. One way to do that is to include a narrative component. Campaigns are compelling and your updates can contain a flavor of that. If something went well, explain how it happened. If someone excelled, tell that story. One good example is the Associated General Contractors of America. When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security listed 16 essential industries during the COVID-19 crisis, construction was not on the list. The association launched a campaign to fix that and 13,000 members took action, half of whom were new to their advocacy efforts. Win or lose, that’s a good story to tell.
- Bring Anecdotes. Anecdotes can be extremely powerful. They are the type of thing that people repeat. Remember that your audience of executives has its own reports to deliver. You can give your leadership good stories to tell. Provide relevant statistics so they can tell those stories, such as the number of individuals who took action more than once. You can also provide anecdotes, such as a lawmaker who gave a speech supporting your position, or an eloquent video clip or personalized testimonial from a member who supported a campaign.
- Be Honest. Don’t sweeten up bad news. Be honest about what happened and how you are addressing it. You’ll gain far more credibility in the long run. There is a lot to be learned from a campaign that gains little traction. It reveals something about your audience. Explain what you are learning, and what your list is telling you by not reacting to the campaign.
- Keep It Tight. Reports must be brief or nobody will read them. They should also be easy to understand. Emphasize graphs, photos and stories. Avoid abbreviations and complexity. Nobody should need a tutorial to understand an update.
Remember too that communication goes both ways. It’s important to communicate your value to leadership, but it’s also important to hear what they have to say and to integrate that feedback into your program. You want leadership to feel secure about the program you are running, but you also want them to feel heard. That might mean experimenting, innovating and trying new strategies. Don’t be afraid to fail if leadership is willing to give you the space.
Overall, teams that communicate well will be those that get the resources and the support. Your team is far more than a cost center. It’s up to you to tell that story. Teams that show value and victories will get the spotlight in your organization.