Keys to Successful Advocacy: Boots on the Ground

By Ross E. Weber • June 27, 2019

Associations have promising potential to influence public policy at every level of government. The most successful advocacy campaigns are customized to an association’s unique needs, but there are certain strategies that are integrated into nearly every successful advocacy campaign. Professionals who specialize in government relations point to direct, face-to-face contact with policymakers – in another word, lobbying – as the most persuasive form of membership engagement. Fly-ins and advocacy days are effective tools to achieve this goal. Politicians notice when a group that represents a particular profession roams the halls of the capitol and legislative office buildings. If a policy proposal has the potential to rock the foundation of a profession, however, those visits might not suffice. Indeed, in those cases, it is wise to consider hiring a person with close connections and expertise to lobby on your behalf.

“Lobbying” isn’t a bad word

Lobbying, lobbyist, and any other form of the word often has a negative connotation. Indeed, a popular misconception of the term’s origin holds that President Ulysses S. Grant irritably referred to office seekers gathered in a Washington hotel lobby as lobbyists. Actually, there are references to the word dating back almost 200 years before President Grant was born, but whenever it was first coined, today many of us think of lobbying as a subversive way for special interests to get laws and regulations written in a favorable way. While there is certainly some truth to this perception, the notion that the activity is always dodgy must be rejected.

Association fly-ins: One type of lobbying

One kind of direct lobbying in which associations often engage is through an advocacy day. Also called a lobby day or fly-in, this effective event influences legislation and empowers members. An incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work is necessary to make the event run smoothly and ease members’ concerns and justifiable anxiety. Logistically, if a group is late to an appointment or can’t find their way from one office to another, the organization’s credibility will be compromised. On the other hand, in those cases when an advocate might misspeak in a meeting, legislators and their staff people will be, on the whole, quite kind and considerate. To make it a success, members should be willing, able, and excited for the opportunity to speak with their elected officials. Members must know that they will receive ample training before they speak to their elected officials, and they will never attend a meeting alone.

Let members be your lobbyists

That said it’s important that the meetings with policymakers are led by members of the association – not association staff. Association staff will make sure everyone has their materials, gets to meetings on time, and can help move the conversation in meetings, but as much as possible these meetings must be driven by the grassroots advocate. Local members meeting with their own elected officials is crucial to a successful lobby day, but the organization’s leadership might consider creating a Strike Force that meets with legislators who chair committees with jurisdiction over key bills and issues.

Have a flexible lobbying schedule

Even a small-scale fly-in requires weeks of preparation. During a recent Washington, D.C. lobby day, professional staff met several leaders of a medical association a few hours before the first of several meetings that had been scheduled in the weeks leading up to the visit. Over coffee and a croissant, the small group discussed the day’s schedule, whether meetings would be with elected officials or staff, news about a recently introduced bill that addressed a legislative priority, two additional issues and related briefing materials we would try to discuss on Capitol Hill and, perhaps most importantly, where to meet if we were lost or separated. A schedule is vitally important, but so is flexibility. In this case, an adventurous taxi ride to the legislative office building created a few extra minutes to make a stop in the office of one of the participant’s own representatives. While this legislator was not a member of one of the key committees we were focused on that day, this quick stop-by afforded the volunteer an opportunity to test her skills and get more comfortable with the issues and environment.

Other articles in our Keys to Successful Advocacy series:

Lobbyists collaborate

Those kinds of quick connections are the bread and butter of professional lobbyists. Associations and trade groups with outstanding government affairs functions focus on fundamental services that must be maintained internally and understand when outside resources including coalitions and contract lobbyists must be deployed. Lobbyists in Washington and every state capital are usually lawyers who represent corporate clients as well as former elected officials and legislative and executive branch staff. While a lobbyist may not be an expert in the issue an industry is dealing with, they know the key players, politics, and processes to make things happen (or go away). The organization’s headquarters staff will be able to identify these powerbrokers in their professional network while also consulting other trade associations, chambers of commerce, and national government relations firms. A contract lobbyist should only be brought on if action is necessary and the goal is achievable. If policymakers are uninterested or the political climate is unfavorable, it’s best to seek another course of action. Even if a lobbyist is brought on, association staff will remain deeply involved in the campaign, on-boarding the hired-hand, writing briefing materials, organizing meetings, and identifying able advocates.

Take action quickly

A few years ago, a national association with a strong state network, observed the swift approval of a detrimental policy through several stages of the legislative process in California. Nothing the national group did – mobilizing the grassroots, engaging like-minded partners, securing media coverage – slowed the progress of this legislation. Leaders of the national group eventually secured support from the board of directors to hire a lobbyist. Association staff solicited recommendations from other organizations in the same industry and invited several candidates to interview with the group’s leadership via conference call. Probing questions led to the selection of one person, who actually declined the offer because of a conflict of interest, but the national group quickly interviewed and hired a person recommended by the declining candidate. Association staff spoke with the newly hired help for several hours to bring him up to speed and the lobbyists immediately assessed the political landscaped and recommended a course of action that ultimately led to the terrible proposal’s defeat. There were many more steps in this process, all of which transpired over the course of one week.

Direct interaction is the most influential strategy

The policy and political professionals who work for elected officials consistently rank direct interaction as the most influential advocacy strategy. More than 90 percent of staffers say that an in-person visit, specifically from a constituent, would have “some” or “a lot” of influence on an undecided legislator. Lobby days and fly-ins are wonderful opportunities to get one’s message heard in the halls of power. They provide publicity and demonstrate the value of membership in the professional or trade organization. Advocacy Days are just one day a year, though, and key legislators might not have a connection to the members who make the trip. Associations and trade groups can’t expect volunteer advocates to take even more time away from their families and nine-to-five responsibilities to undertake the kind of sustained effort that’s required to help policymakers understand a nuanced issue. That’s where contract lobbyists can step in. Although they’re paid a premium, the level of expertise they bring to a campaign is invaluable.

“The most confident critics,” according to Ulysses S. Grant, “are generally those who know the least about the matter criticized.” An effective government affairs team will help your association achieve more by ensuring that elected officials hear from the professionals and experts who know the most about how proposed policies will impact your industry.

About The Author

Ross E. Weber is a state affairs manager for policy and engagement with Naylor Association Solutions.