Companies and organizations constantly are looking for ways to reach audiences that matter, whether they are members of Congress, local elected officials or opinion leaders. And while today we have more ways to communicate than ever, the challenge of cutting through the noise and actually being heard remains.
This is especially true in Washington, D.C., and particularly during presidential election cycles when the noise from campaigns is loudest. Every member of the House of Representatives is up for re-election in 2016, as is one-sixth of the Senate. This year began with the largest field of presidential candidates in the nation’s history, all starving for time in the media in all of its forms.
Billions will be spent on campaign ads nationally, as well as in targeted states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Florida. Social media will be flooded with campaign messages, and the least sophisticated of these will have no specific target. Inboxes will be inundated with messages asking for donations (just $1), communicating about specific issues and asking for volunteers.
To bludgeon an oft-used metaphor: You can’t see the forest for the trees. During these dense communication moments, the best way to get the attention of influencers and policymakers is to make the communications easily accessible, immediately relevant, potentially viral and sustainable.
Communicating with policymakers is much different today thanks to reforms designed to diminish the influence of lobbyists, especially in Washington. Members of Congress are limited in the types of “gifts” they can accept, making lavish dinners and private events a thing of the past, which has significantly impacted the access of lobbyists. In fact, the best way to reach politicians today may not be in Washington at all.
Congressional district work periods are times during the year when members are back home in their districts meeting with constituents, attending local organization meetings and visiting local businesses. This is a great time to schedule a meeting or attend a town hall with a key member to discuss an issue of importance to your company or organization. Even if your company is not based in the member’s district, identifying like-minded people or local influencers who can deliver your message in a personal way can make all the difference. So skip the fly-in of company executives to Washington, D.C., and schedule a meeting in the district office.
When connecting with policymakers, the message and the messenger matter equally. It helps tremendously if both have some connection or relevance to the politician. Even a member of the state legislature or the city council will respond better to an encounter if the issue is something they care about – or if the messenger is particularly compelling. So do your homework on the policymaker. When building out a strategy, consider the narrative you want to tell and who will deliver that message. It could make all the difference in your engagement.
The notion of viral communications in social media often is not taken seriously, as there are few issues – especially in public policy – that create a strong enough response to secure a million tweets, clicks or likes. “Viral” needs to be re-defined to measure effectiveness in reaching your target audience, even if it is just a small group of policymakers and opinion leaders. A recent study of congressional staff found that as few as 30 social media comments on an issue were enough for the office to pay attention.
Digital grassroots should be a tool used in any comprehensive advocacy campaign as a cost-effective way to identify, educate and engage those most likely to support your issue or position and amplify your cause. Through digital ads, supporters are directed to a digital hub for more information about the issue, targeted content based on their location and member of congress, and the means to engage their policymakers in a range of ways from emails, phone calls and social media posts to rallies on the Capitol steps.
Organizations always should approach advocacy as a long-term strategy and commitment, not as an add-on tactic in a time of crisis. Building relationships with members of the House of Representatives, on the ground with local influencers or digitally with online supporters takes time, effort and consistency. But that effort can pay off tremendously – once you have taken the time to build an army of supporters that can be deployed at key times to amplify your message. These efforts should not be turned on and off from issue to issue; communication should be regular, engaging and collaborative in order to maintain allegiance and commitment from your supporters.
As costly as the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign cycles were, 2016 is promising to be even more so. This is due to the millions of dollars being raised on behalf of candidates through organizations known as “Super PACS.” These groups cannot coordinate with the campaigns, but can spend millions of dollars on ads in support of a candidate or issue – essentially this multiplies the amount of spending of each candidate on communications. As dense as the forest has been before, we should expect it to be even more difficult to break through this season.
That’s why these efforts to make communications accessible, relevant, viral and sustainable are the best means to get your message through. You can certainly be heard, even in this climate, but you must make it matter to your audience.