Whether you’re planning an intimate meet and greet with a mayoral candidate or coordinating a large assembly for congressional leaders, it’s critical that your advocates are trained to properly and effectively engage candidates in these settings. As we approach the 2020 election, presidential forums present a powerful opportunity to advance your organization’s policy priorities to the foreground of the election.
Preparation is paramount for successful grassroots initiatives. Advocates who are speaking publicly on behalf of your organization, at a presidential forum or otherwise, should be poised to present issues clearly and bring greater awareness to your organization’s mission. You may consider hosting webinars, providing talking points, or even holding mock forums for advocates and volunteers prior to a presidential forum. Remember, practice makes perfect!
Perhaps the most anticipated part of presidential forums are the questions. Asking questions, strategically but with context is both a legislative and communications tactic — and having that skill is beneficial for advocates. More importantly, how a question is asked influences how it is answered, and answers from candidates influence how voters make informed decisions.
I drew on my eight years of experience in grassroots advocacy and talked to a seasoned grassroots professional who’s lived through quite a few presidential cycles to gather tips on how to successfully train advocates to engage in these candidate forums. Here are five keys to success:
Ensure that your advocates know your organization’s issue areas and the policy ask, inside and out.
The ask is a strategic message that plainly outlines their issue and suggests a desired policy solution. If you’re training advocates in person or on a webinar, it could be helpful to host a mock forum, so you can gauge how comfortable an advocate is when presenting your organization's issues and policy ask.
Encourage advocates to be polite and friendly.
When you smile at someone, more often than not they smile back. The same holds true for presidential forums. You should advise advocates to put their judgments and personal opinions aside. Advocates should be advised to remain respectful and courteous when engaging with presidential hopefuls, or any elected official for that matter. If a candidate feels attacked or violated at a forum, they’re far less likely to respond to a question or support a certain policy position.
Make sure it ends up online.
Since 2008, we’ve seen a huge increase in social media engagement from individuals running for office, elected officials, and other public figures. As your training advocates, urge them to share their experience at the forum on social media. On a social network like Twitter, advocates can use hashtags related to the issue or even tag the candidate, which could possibly garner more attention to the greater issue. Additionally, sharing questions and details from forums and assemblies online can actually make candidates more accountable offline.
Tell your advocates to share their personal story.
Standing up at a forum and asking, “What are you going to do about affordable health care?” is pretty generic. Everyone is wondering about health care, what makes your advocates different? Remind your advocates that sharing their story allows candidates to understand the depth and reality of an issue. Leading a question with a personal anecdote or compelling statistics can make the difference between candidates choosing to support or oppose a position.
Have different advocates ready to ask the same question in different ways.
Perhaps it seems redundant, but in a forum setting, you don’t know who will be called upon for questions. Make sure that multiple people are ready to ask the same question because you never know who’ll get picked.
Dorian Wanzer is the Senior Manager for Grassroots Advocacy at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Prior to joining AIA, she managed advocacy and communications at the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC). Dorian resides in Washington, D.C.