Staging an event that enhances an advocacy program is part art, part science. While events can raise the profile of a campaign or group, there’s also the potential for them to be a waste of resources. Before you leap into planning your next advocacy event, you may want to consider these positives and negatives.
Location is key: DC or back in the district?
Consider how many events take place in Washington every day and how few are covered by the media. Your event might make more sense back in the state or district where prominent media coverage and constituent/grassroots engagement will be amplified. Strategically local press coverage may be the better tactic on occasion even more so than national attention.
Look for partners: Third-party validation is key.
A congressional caucus, coalition, trade association or federal/state agency can offer a winning partnership that boosts your client and the cause. These groups can take a small gathering and turn the event into a full spectacle for better or worse. Be careful not to have too many cooks in the kitchen. Event planning can be stressful, particularly when organizations with different goals, objectives, and resources come together.
Use the calendar to create a deadline.
Deadlines drive action and your event may force members of Congress, state and local leaders, partners, sponsors and advocates to make a decision about being onboard with your campaign or sitting this one out. You will likely determine the level of “yes” of you champions for your issue. A “no” is better than a “maybe.”
Keep in mind the cost in time and money.
Do you and your organization/client have the time and resources to devote to an event on top of the advocacy activities, outreach, follow up and digital engagement needed to make a difference? A lower-cost congressional briefing, a panel discussion with an advocacy/communications partner or happy hour may be sufficient to achieve or at least address your goals.
Staff collaboration is essential.
Staff from government relations, communications and digital must come together along with the leader and board of directors of all organizations involved in order to stage a successful event. Any fractures in the funding, staffing and execution may upset an otherwise solid event and its outcomes. Hiring an event coordinator or agency might be required to serve as ringmaster.
The event is a campaign itself.
Once a decision is made to stage an advocacy event, the time leading up to the actual gathering and follow up represents a campaign unto itself that must be factored into your advocacy strategy. A full-blown proposal must be developed and approved, including timeline, tasks, assignments, venues, partners, media outreach, video use, invitations, and registration. Leaders and staff responsibilities must be assigned and people working on all aspects of the event held accountable.
Making the go or no-go decision.
We have both staged and attended a wide range of advocacy events, and it’s fascinating to see the scope and levels of expense to please all parties. It’s okay to borrow elements of successful events you have attended or held over the years. But the most important decision in advocacy events is planning toward a “go” or “no-go” verdict. If you’re a “go,” it’s to be all hands on deck because the launch, rally, fundraising gala, fly-in celebration, breakfast briefing or happy hour will reflect on you and your overall advocacy campaign.
Mike Fulton directs the Washington, D.C., office of the Asher Agency and teaches public affairs in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media’s Integrated Marketing Communications program.
Joshua Habursky is the Head of Federal Affairs at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), Contributing Editor of Campaigns & Elections, and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.