Many vendors promoting advocacy solutions down the stretch offer quality products and services with tangible results.
But an alarm should go off when you’re told that your advocacy program is broken beyond repair, and it needs to be completely rebuilt around a single vendor.
Most products and services have the potential to provide gradual improvement, but a few will claim the ability to reshape an advocacy program, or even be credited with ensuring that it led to passing a bill or defeating a regulation.
Here are the tactics to avoid so that you don’t fall for a “snake oil” pitch and have your budget venomously bit:
Meetings for the sake of meetings
Some contract, and even in-house lobbyists unnecessarily bring their clients to DC just to build relationships even when there’s no chance of a bill's passage. Timing in advocacy and lobbying is critical, and there will be a point in time when it is necessary for an in-person meeting.
But meetings without a strategic purpose drain your budget and overall capacity. If you want to build a relationship this goal can just as easily be achieved in the district at a fraction of the cost. Additionally, congressional staff don’t like folks who set up meetings and waste their valuable time without a specific purpose or achievable goal.
Advertising to gain awareness for an issue or public support is great, but this can be an open pit where money is poured down the drain on awareness building activities that would be better targeted or segmented. Be very cautious when it comes to channel selection because certain mediums afford agencies a better markup.
Go where your audience goes, even if it means investing in some polling or data research before you make the ad placements. Advertising can be very effective, but the potential to waste money and show limited returns is a constant fear.
Glamour and gloss, forget substance
Organizations should have a strong website and well-written and researched white paper with contact information as a leave-behind. But they don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a glossy annual report or booklet on the organization. Many Hill staff prefer to receive materials electronically and aren’t into the pocket-folder packets of the past. Authenticity and content relative to the state or district matters more. A quote from a constituent/advocate can be more effective than an infographic that isn’t localized or personalized to the member/district.
Videos of five or more minutes on an issue or bill are rarely viewed. Consider yourself on the receiving end of any advocacy or grassroots communications you and your partnering organizations implement. Would you sit through a 20-minute explainer video? Keep it simple, concise, and don’t be afraid to utilize low-budget footage of actual advocates. Experts say the average attention span is two minutes for video content.
Robocalls that may or may not come from "constituents" never seem to do anything but irritate Hill staff and run into technical difficulties. Giving a gift card to a non-constituent to sign a petition who doesn’t understand your organization or issues is futile.
As the advocacy community becomes more technical and sophisticated, the Hill is also recognizing authentic messages and can filter out AstroTurf easily. You don’t help your organization or cause by just racking up numbers without context or substance.
The newest tech
The advocacy software scene has greatly improved over the past few years, but this is an area to be extra cautious where the public relations and headlines might not translate to actual effectiveness. Cutting-edge technology is hard to come by, and it’s great to see research and development in advancements and innovations in advocacy communications.
Still, if it’s being sold as “revolutionary” you might want to pause before you strike a check. Providers should continue to strive to innovate, but make sure their marketing and PR are grounded in reality. Get recommendations from peers you trust.
Joshua Habursky is assistant vice of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at West Virginia University.
Mike Fulton directs the Washington, D.C., office of the Asher Agency and teaches public affairs in West Virginia University's Integrated Marketing Communications program.