By Kevin Coroneos, National Digital Roundtable Advisory Board Member and Director of Digital Advocacy Strategy at the Investment Company Institute
New platforms. New policies and regulations. A constant competition for attention… It’s not easy working in policy communications! With an ecosystem that includes 435 Members of Congress, thousands of member, research, committee, and institutional staff, and even more government agency regulators and employees, breaking through the noise with your organization’s policy priorities is becoming increasingly difficult.
As Ernestine Walls Benedict, Chief Communications Officer of ZERO TO THREE, used to hear from her father each morning, “It’s a new day.”
With this mentality in mind, Ernestine had the idea to bring together the best and brightest minds across government, non-profits, and advocacy organizations through the National Digital Roundtable and the British Embassy Washington to discuss how to shine brighter in this new day of advocacy and policy communications.
With so many great ideas and strategies tossed around, the room aligned on several key best practices:
No clear ask, no clear action
For many companies and organizations, the competition for attention is not only between other interests, but often between the dozens of internal policy priorities. As the American Academy of Family Physicians David Tully said, “Do less, better.” With that mentality in mind, it’s essential that organizations align around one to three key priorities to focus on to have a better chance of being heard. Too many asks from one group can lead to confusion about what they’re actually looking to accomplish.
Once unified around limited priorities, organizations MUST be clear about what the ask is: Are you looking to co-sponsor legislation? Vote yes/no on a bill? Make a specific change to proposed regulation?
No matter what the request is, organizations must be completely clear to make sure policymakers and staff understand what you’re looking for and can consider taking action. As Mitchell Rivard, Chief of Staff for Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-08), shared, his office connected with over 2,500 people, including 1,000 calls, 1500 pieces of mail, 10-15 external meetings, and 30-35 internal meetings.
If the ask is not clear, the message could get lost in the thousands of competing messages and interests. To succeed in this new day, the clear ask and message must leverage both digital and non-digital tactics to really break through the noise.
The bottom-line: Put the bottom-line up front
Time is of the essence! Members of Congress generally book their time in 15-minute increments, and staff are bouncing around from issue to issue, meeting to meeting, which means organizations have to make their point and make it fast.
As one person noted, you need to be able to tell your organization’s story in 30 seconds or less. By leading with the bottom line, groups can deliver the heart of their argument immediately, standing a better chance to break through the noise and get their priorities to the forefront.
At the heart of every winning campaign is a winning story. The days of mass grassroots letter campaigns are coming to an end. While there’s a time and place for these tactics, offices are taking notice of the same template message they receive over, and over, and over again. By finding advocates—specifically constituents—to tell a unique, personal story, groups can stand out among the thousands of letters, phone calls, and meetings coming through an office each week.
Brands and organizations may also not be the best messenger for some stories. With distinct followings, untapped audiences, and more authentic storytelling angles, advocates and influencers are an opportunity to amplify organization messaging through a different voice that may be more trusted by an audience you intend to influence or inspire. They may also be more representative of the issue you’re advocating for, which could lead to more genuine narrative.
Social Currant's Ashwath N. reminded us that showcasing people with lived experiences leads to authentic content that will resonate with policymakers and policy influencers, while potentially getting others to join in. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’s Debbie Veney echoed this idea, urging the room to “trust your advocates,” when they’re passionate about the issues, they’ll learn the details and take action in potentially more impactful ways.
Another approach highlighted was treating influencers as press, having them report out on the latest news and updates on the issues impacting their followers. This tactic is a unique way to reach the people who care about the issues who may not be following traditional media outlets with your messaging from a more authentic angle.
Follow up, follow up, follow up
You can come up with the flashiest, most attention-grabbing, dynamic storytelling tactic in the history of advocacy, but if your key targets only hear from you and your advocates once, your message could fade into the sunset.
It’s essential for organizations to keep their foot on the pedal to make their voice heard, louder and clearer than the competition. Whether it’s a Congressional hearing or National (Insert Your Cause Here) Day, there are so many opportunities throughout the year that organizations can leverage to follow up on their priorities.
One of the most important moments in time to leverage is any physical activations, whether that is your organization testifying, a fly-in, or meetings. By building a digital strategy around these moments, you can follow up on your messaging across multiple platforms and keep your audiences more informed.
One creative idea was a behind-the-scenes look into testifying before Congress. By showcasing the process and providing a post-testimony readout through a video or photo, organizations can show the hard work and dedication that went into fighting for the issues that matter to their audience.
By delivering new, unique stories at multiple times throughout the year and around key moments in time, groups can build a stronger narrative to make the case for their asks.
Know your audience and when to act
Members of Congress aren’t always in DC! You have to know where your audience is located, and when is the best time to hit them. When Congress is out of session, they’re generally back home in the districts they represent. If you’re trying to make some noise around an issue, remember they’ll also have their Congressional staff in district offices, who are much closer to the constituents they’re working to serve. Through geofencing and targeting local offices with constituent stories, you may be able to reach the decisionmakers in-district.
And good intel is needed to make sure you’re hitting the right target. As one participant reminisced, an advocacy group spent millions of dollars advertising around their issue to the government agency the person worked at. There was just one problem: the agency was actually on their side, it was the White House that was the opposition. By working across organizations, including legal experts, communications, and government affairs, groups can correctly identify the right targets and make sure they hit them with the necessary messaging…instead of trying to convince people already on your side.
As if knowing their schedules is not difficult enough, it’s also key to keep track of platforms your audience and targets are active on. For example, with the looming data privacy concerns and recent ban on TikTok for government devices, reaching policymakers and staff on the platform is likely to miss the target. But while policymakers may not be on the platform, your advocates may be, which could be a good opportunity to inspire them to take action on the platforms where the people you need to influence may hear them. Several participants noted that they’ve motivated their base through TikTok—whether through leveraging influencers or their own brand channels—to contact policymakers through email, phone calls, meetings, or other opportunities.
It’s definitely a new day for policy communications! And with such brilliant minds behind the strategies shaping communications in Washington, every new day brings new growth and evolution in the field of advocacy.
Be sure to follow the National Digital Roundtable for more information about upcoming events and highlights from our discussions about the latest communications trends and tactics.