Digital Strategies in Advocacy: My Conversation with Campaign Experts

When Camille White-Stern from the New York Code Academy asked me to be on a panel about advocacy and tech, I had to say yes! For me, advocacy has always been about telling our stories to influence lawmaking. Digital advocacy is about storytelling on a larger scale — and having other people (not just lawmakers) hear our voices, and perhaps understand where we’re coming from.

Before Camille could ask who else to include, I knew who to call next: Tal Woliner at Story Partners and Tiffany Kaszuba at CRD Associates. These two women are not only expert advocacy and technology strategists, but they share my enthusiasm getting “real people” to engage in policy-making by sharing their stories.

Advocacy + Tech panel: Camille, Tal, Tiffany and Rachna

With Camille as the moderator, here are some highlights from our conversation on using digital strategies to advance advocacy campaigns.

CAMILLE: DIGITAL ADVOCACY AND SOCIAL MEDIA HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR YEARS — FROM THE ONLINE PETITIONS WITH MOVEON.ORG, WHICH LAUNCHED IN 1998! DO YOU THINK THERE’S STILL A BACKLASH AGAINST USING THESE TOOLS IN THE ADVOCACY COMMUNITY?

TIFFANY: Among some nonprofit advocacy groups, there is some backlash against social media. And we have to make the case to groups about the value of engaging with the broader community via social media — and managing expectations. Generally, a lot of the push back is concern about being out front of an issue.

RACHNA: There’s a fear-factor about giving up control of the message. Organizations often get nervous about giving their members free range in writing letters to lawmakers or engaging with social media. What would they say if we aren’t scripting them? I respond with asking the organization whether they’re doing a good job of educating and informing their support base. Individuals are often issue experts as they’re dealing with the problem on a daily basis. The organization is just putting their individual experiences into a larger social, political context.

Before starting a campaign, organizations also need to be honest with themselves about their goal. Is it truly advocacy and engaging lawmakers to secure more cosponsors or a vote on a bill? Or is the digital campaign about building your list or donor base?

TAL: A campaign can encourage “high-value comments” — from thought leaders and CEOs, for example — as well as empower “everyday people” to add their voices. That’s when we use a variety of tools, including POPVOX and social media, to make it easier for people to engage in the policymaking process.

As an advocate, some think you have to make a choice between digital advocacy and traditional advocacy (like lobbying and grassroots). But why not do both?

CAMILLE: IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN HOW CLIENTS ON THE LEFT/LIBERALS AND ON THE RIGHT/CONSERVATIVES APPROACH ONLINE ADVOCACY OR SOCIAL MEDIA?

TAL: We don’t necessarily use different tools for left-leaning vs. right-leaning campaigns. Instead the difference is in the tactics, targeting and messaging. We target certain demographics and party affiliates depending on the issue and tailor which platforms and news sites we select based on audience preferences. The bottom line is that it is important to know who you’re targeting and getting to know your audience well.

TIFFANY: Not everyone can afford paid media, so the major difference isn’t between liberal and conservative organizations, but rather with organizations with large budgets compared with organizations with smaller budgets.

“It’s important to know your audience — and how they consume media.”

Groups with smaller budgets are more likely to use and experiment with using social media in their campaigns because a little money can go a long way. To that end, it’s important to know your audience — and how they consume media. Get to know the audience you’re focusing on to engage with really well. What other policies do they care about? This isn’t about a one or two-week Twitter campaign, but about building a relationship over time.

CAMILLE: POPVOX IS A NONPARTISAN ADVOCACY PLATFORM. IS THERE A DIFFERENCE OF HOW THE RIGHT VS. THE LEFT APPROACH YOUR SITE?

RACHNA: POPVOX is a neutral, nonpartisan platform which aggregates legislative information, statements from “issue experts” like advocacy groups and trade associations and public sentiment data — for every bill pending before Congress.

Like what Tal and Tiffany said, in our experience the difference isn’t on the political spectrum. Instead, we find a lot of POPVOX users are on our platform want to view the information for themselves. Many don’t feel like they can trust Washington, and would rather read the text of a bill or learn from other individuals’ comments before they weigh in.

TAL: In legislative advocacy more generally, there is a transparency movement to hold lawmakers accountable. For example, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was a huge piece of legislation and had many complicated provisions in it. People want to know more detail on what Congress is doing.

CAMILLE: WASHINGTON, DC HAS A REPUTATION OF BEING ROOTED IN TRADITION. WHEN YOU GET PUSHBACK FROM CLIENTS ABOUT TRYING SOMETHING NEW, HOW DO YOU RESPOND?

TAL: Understanding my client’s goal is most important. There are some goals that can be accomplished by sending a letter to lawmakers that leads to a bigger discussion. In other cases, it’s about taking baby steps — and then threading it all together. There’s also value in running a paid and earned digital campaign for two weeks and then assessing your actual return on the investment and making adjustments. You can show the client real results with advocacy — and map these results so it’s easier for them to see the big picture.

“You can’t just launch a product anymore without considering Wall Street, K Street and Main Street.”

If my client is a corporation, it’s important to consider the company’s business goals — not just the communications or public affairs goals. Also, you can’t just launch a product anymore without considering Wall Street, K Street and Main Street. Understanding your client’s goals often requires a holistic approach to how they do business and laddering up goals to achieve business results and/or protect corporate reputation. What are they trying to achieve, ultimately?

TIFFANY: We still get some push back from groups concerned that they will be associated with comments made by one of their members or an outsider who gets involved with the conversation on social media, not as much as what they publish as an organization. Education on the uses of social media and the etiquette generally helps calm these fears. So, I try to get them to get on social media and just monitor conversations and see what similar organizations are doing in this space. Understanding how the relationships on social media work allows them to become comfortable with the threats and really see the benefits they can have through these interactions.

“We talked about the issue in specific, concrete terms. We made the campaign about storytelling.”

CAMILLE: DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE CAMPAIGN?

TIFFANY: We worked on a campaign called Cuts Hurt (#cutshurt). Our client, the Coalition for Health Funding, had released a report to share the stories of individuals harmed by federal budget cuts. Budget issues, especially sequestration, are very wonky, but we talked about the issue in specific, concrete terms. We made the campaign about storytelling: seniors going hungry due to the cuts; women being denied health care; and children not getting important screenings.

Because of the size of our traditional coalition, we were able to get participants from across the country that all had different interests but were connected by the fact that federal budget cuts affected them in some way. We were able to couple the digital media push with traditional rallies and Capitol Hill meetings to amplify the effect.

TAL: One of my favorite campaigns was supporting the airline industry’s successful effort to urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to stop federal sequester budget cuts that led to air traffic controller furloughs. Almost overnight, the airline industry faced an unprecedented crisis as these furloughs caused a chain reaction of flight delays and cancellations. I called Rachna, and by the next day, her team had a customized a “Write Lawmaker” tool ready for our client to add to a campaign microsite, DontGroundAmerica.com. Within 24 hours, airline customers, employees and families were pleading directly with the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and members of Congress to stop the furloughs of air traffic controllers.

More than 21,000 verified constituents generated over 120,000 letters to their lawmakers using the POPVOX tool, sharing stirring personal stories: moms trying to make it to graduation, and military families not being able to join their service member during their brief time off. This campaign also included paid advertising, social media engagement, a National Press Club Event, widespread earned media coverage, lobbying and coalition building. Congress and the White House got the message, and swiftly put the air traffic controllers back to work within 10 days. In fact, that was the only bill that passed at the time undoing sequestration cuts.

Screenshot of the Don’t Ground America campaign website

RACHNA: That was one of my favorite campaigns too! Being able to see the map of the country light up with people commenting was so exciting. And it was fun to be in “campaign mode” with Tal and her team. I literally camped out in her office so that we could talk face-to-face (instead of fielding her many calls!)

TAL: The airlines also brought the campaign to their key audience: airline passengers. As campaigners, we need to have clever ways to raise visibility. The airlines got ahead of the furloughs by sending emails to customers warning them of pending flight delays and cancellations due to the federal sequester. Also, if you were delayed and sitting at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, for example, you would literally see a message on departure monitors explaining the real reason for the delay. And gate attendants encouraged passengers to visit the campaign site to write a letter to their lawmakers to express their frustrations.

RACHNA: I have another favorite campaign to share. We’re working on a regulatory campaign (#DenyNAI) right now with the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants. Earlier this summer, they called on the Department of Transportation to reverse their decision tentatively approving Norwegian Air International (NAI) to operate flights to the United States. Via POPVOX “Write Lawmaker” tools on their respective campaign websites, nearly 10,000 verified participants shared their comments on this DOT decision. We delivered those letters to regulations.gov to be added to the official “public comment period”.

Here’s the brilliant strategy part: Our clients also wanted us to deliver those letters to the House and Senate to urge lawmakers to introduce a related bill in Congress to reverse the agency decision. That bill, HR 5090, was introduced with nearly 130 bipartisan cosponsors.

Aggregated public sentiment data on POPVOX.com

CAMILLE: IS TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY SCARY FOR SOME ORGANIZATIONS?

RACHNA: POPVOX is all about transparency and accountability. In an era of political circus, we want our users on our platform to get a real-time sense of what’s happening in Congress — and to read other people’s letters to Congress.

“You may not agree with someone’s point of view, but it is powerful to be able to understand where they are coming from, and possibly even empathize.”

We offer that same real-time “look” into an issue or bill in Congress for our clients, embeddable on their own campaign website. As their campaign progresses and more people weigh in, the maps, pie charts and line graphs can show up-to-the-minute success. But a map and pie chart can also be a reality-check of what Congress is hearing. Sometimes the maps and pie charts may not be going your way. And it’s important to be honest with your supporters that you may be in for a long battle.

An example I give my clients about a long-run campaign when public sentiment wasn’t going its way was about gun rights legislation. In 1986 (long before POPVOX or even the Internet!), Congress passed sweeping legislation strengthening the rights of gun owners — despite a Democratic-led, pro-gun-control House. This campaign was part of an 18-year long effort to undo federal gun restrictions.

A reality check can be scary. But transparency enables you to start seeing and reading what the opposition is saying — and suddenly you’re presented with a new opportunity to educate and motivate your audience.

TAL: When I think about transparency and accountability, I also have to look inward. The more controversial your issue, the more holes your opposition is able to punch in you. People will question your every move. Who are you doing business with and who pays them? Experts you engage will most likely be questioned about their funding sources, their relationships, and whether they’re truly “independent”.

In this current political climate, we are also seeing think tanks and research entities being challenged about their perceived independence. (Just check out this recent New York Times story as proof.) Their seemingly “unbiased” findings may be a part of a lobbying effort for a special interest. As consumers of this information, we need to ask ourselves, who or what is the source?

RACHNA: Yes, and always cite the source!

CAMILLE: WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

TAL: In the coming months, we are seeing a lot more campaigns targeting federal agencies on federal rulemaking, compared to Congressional legislation, especially for our corporate clients. We are working on a campaign this fall on a proposed regulation, with a four-month public comment period. In this case, the two sides are battling it out for the outcome, and even the most mundane proposed rules are becoming exciting. All the best practices in communications apply as both sides are educating and engaging their supporters.

As you know, Congress is in recess until September and they’re facing elections in less than three months. Policymaking is cyclical, and with Election Day coming up, attention in town has focused on finalizing federal rules before new leadership in the White House takes over.

CAMILLE: WHAT’S THE “NEXT BIG THING” IN THE WORLD OF ADVOCACY AND TECH?

TIFFANY: I would like to see a social media platform that makes it even easier for everyday Americans to connect with policy making and allows them to learn more about issues and interact with lawmakers and stakeholders to influence policy.

TAL: I am monitoring two trends: First is Snapchat. World Wildlife Fund did a great campaign on Snapchat about animals going extinct, where the image of the animal disappeared as the “snap” counted down. The second is virtual reality. We might very well see campaigns leverage virtual reality to put an activist into a place to create a better understanding of the issue. For now, media outlets are experimenting with virtual reality in creative ways.

RACHNA: We’re now experimenting with video on our embeddable “Write Lawmaker” tools. As more and more people are engaging in advocacy campaigns via mobile, I’m excited to see whether using a video to explain the issue (rather than the standard talking points) will help participants write a better quality letter to their lawmakers.

CAMILLE: And what’s next for the New York Code Academy is a new space for learning here in Washington, DC. I hope we can engage these women again in another conversation about advocacy and technology in a few months.

(Special thanks to Nick Cavarocchi at CRD Associates, who was kind enough to share his notes with me, which made this post possible. And, thank you also to Social Tables for providing us the meeting space, with hot pink walls!)

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