In an era of polarized politics and divided government, a successful advocacy campaign must work to cultivate third-party voices and influencers who can align on policy to garner media attention and shape opinion.
Shoe leather will only get you so far in 2019. Now, a campaign to influence the influential may be just what you need.
Achieving bipartisan agreement from diverse and sometimes divergent stakeholders requires a series of high-level chess moves that account for the strategic advantage of each player and potential countermove. But if you put in the time and effort to form strong bonds and learn each partner’s motives, your advocacy campaign will be well-positioned to shape what decision-makers think and guide them toward your policy solution.
Here are some practical steps you can take to build a long-lasting and mutually beneficial coalition for your advocacy campaign:
Start with real-world relationships.
Some people hear the term influencer and automatically think social media influencer. While there may be bloggers and digital activists who can act as a megaphone for your advocacy campaign, you should strive to build relationships outside the comfort zone of your keyboard.
Reach out to set up an introductory meeting. Or better yet, a casual get-together for coffee, lunch or a drink. Don’t think of the influencers online or offline as professional transactions. Instead, ask the influencer what his or her goals are and offer to make introductions to people who can help. Ask for advice and find one or two easy suggestions to incorporate into your campaign.
Look outside your typical sphere of influence.
A well-constructed advocacy campaign can turn heads and make headlines by engaging strange bedfellows. A recent example of this is former Obama staffer Van Jones working with Koch Industries on criminal justice reform.
An outspoken progressive working with Koch Industries on a bipartisan issue? At face value, it seemed like somewhat of an unholy alliance. Yet theirs was a key partnership to put criminal justice reform in the policy spotlight and paved the way for eventual congressional support and the president’s signature on the recently enacted First Step Act.
But not every partner needs to share a stage. In my career, I have helped engage Green Party leaders, Christian groups, minority groups, consumer groups, Democrats and Republicans, to name a few. You must work to understand what each voice brings to the debate and the best way for them to speak up and activate their unique constituencies. Forcing everyone to work together may be more of a distraction than a help. It’s been said politics is about the art of addition — find the best way for your groups to add to that 50 percent + 1 tally, and put them to work.
Identify a win-win strategy.
You know why you want influencers to support your effort, but do you understand why they want to? Just like the best lobbyist, you should be prepared to outline for a potential partner the pros and cons of an issue and his or her anticipated role in the campaign.
Layout the tangible benefits for partners such as an amplified message, expansion or support of a grassroots program, exposure to new platforms, and opportunities to provide testimony. Whatever the benefit for you as an advocacy professional, figuring out the benefit for the influencer makes your work infinitely easier.
Start with a small ask.
Cultivating a relationship with an influencer or an advocacy group that you want to enlist in your cause is like dating — you don’t open with a marriage proposal. Instead, start with a small ask while you both vet each other. Trust and integrity are everything. If you agree to something, do it. If the influencer asks for discretion, give it. First impressions matter, and if you break confidence, you likely won’t get a second date.
Tailor your ask.
A successful partnership relies upon more than just a shared perspective or desired outcome. There are other key factors at play: the political landscape, public opinion, the partner’s reputation, and even the overall timing for both groups.
Research your targeted influencer— his fundraising performance, public statements, organizational priorities and member communications. Make sure your ask is customized for the influencer’s unique situation and be ready to answer the obvious follow-up questions.
Lastly, be their advocate.
While your client pays the bills, your relationships with partners are priceless. Always advocate for them at the organizational and individual level. Offer them an open door for your advice and feedback on issues you are and aren’t working on. When you see opportunities for them to grow and shine, recommend and speak up for them.
If cultivated properly, your coalition of third-party voices, issue experts and thought leaders will extend past your current advocacy campaign and offer support and influence on many issues to come.
Chaz Cirame is founder of Cc: External Affairs and one of the nation’s foremost experts regarding how NGOs and influencers affect public policy.