Defense Secretary James Mattis once wrote in an email, “Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance.” D.C. has been having that kind of a moment since Donald Trump’s election. While some smart government affairs shops are changing with it, many aren’t.
Today’s government relations professionals face enormous new challenges because the true audience for impacting legislation has shifted beyond the Beltway. Companies, trade associations and issue groups will always need access to the Hill and Administration, but in the Trump Era, they also need to demonstrate public support to be successful.
Congress’ political antennae is set to an “extra-sensitive” frequency as they see boycotts, marches, and protests back home. Meanwhile, in D.C., their phone lines and email inboxes are being jammed by citizens demanding support or opposition to the latest proposal from the White House. They need to know their voters’ position on issues before taking a firm stand.
The good news is that there are dozens of comparatively inexpensive strategies for generating broad public support on an issue, even for those that don’t make the front page of the local newspaper. At our firm, we’ve begun applying campaign tactics to public affairs efforts. What does that look like? Here are three relatively inexpensive ways advocacy groups can get more attention on Capitol Hill.
Shift public opinion in a district.
The great advantage of digital advocacy is its precision. You can engage only the most politically active constituents in a specific district with a messaging campaign to shift sentiment on an issue. Geo-targeting ads around a member’s district and D.C. offices is a time-tested way to convey the impression of a wider-scale campaign. Think of a small object projecting a much larger shadow. This way, even the smallest budgets can have a magnified impact.
Call constituents to action.
Generating calls, letters, and emails from a member’s constituents is critical to passing legislation in the current environment. New tools and techniques make it easier than ever for voters to make their voices heard in Washington. In the Trump era, Twitter is a vital communications channel to D.C. and we now have technology making it easy to generate tweets directly from constituents to members – or even staff in some cases. There’s no reason to leave such a powerful and inexpensive tool out of an advocacy plan.
Build an advocacy army.
In this remarkable new political environment, organizations must be able to show members of Congress that their constituents care about their issue and demand action. Historically, organizations ramped up government and public affairs campaigns quickly to fight the issue de jour, only to disband or whither when that particular battle was finished.
Smart organizations recognize that building a standing army of advocates to engage on any issue the organization cares about is a better route in the long term. No different than a campaign builds out a volunteer and activist corps, so should advocacy groups have a pool of advocates they can continually call on for legislative battles.
Bo Harmon is a 20 year GOP campaign veteran who has advised congressional, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns on communications and grassroots engagement. With the Prosper Group, he guides issue advocacy groups to use campaign techniques to achieve legislative victories.