When your issue comes up in a proposed bill, it will only stay in committee for so long. You have a limited amount of time to make sure the floor vote goes in your favor.
This article covers how to organize a successful advocacy campaign that combines grasstops champions and grassroots supporters. It’s a careful balance, and it’s critical to get it right.
Start with a Plan
The first thing you need is a plan of action. Your issue has been mentioned in a proposed bill, and it’s going to a subcommittee. How do you begin?
Call together the relevant teams for an initial meeting. This may include your research, communications, membership, grasstops, and grassroots teams.
Create a shared central hub for the bill. Sharepoint works great for this, and so does a folder in Google Drive. Everything goes into the central hub:
- Full analysis of the proposed bill and its impact on your industry. This analysis may change over time as subcommittees and committees mark it up and adjust it.
- Your position. This should be a full articulation of why you support or oppose the bill, and what it will mean for your members.
- Talking points. If anyone has to issue a statement quickly, you don’t want them to invent something on the spot. Provide them with words they can use, whether it’s for an interview, a tweet, or a meeting.
- Week-by-week actions for the advocacy campaign. Work backwards from an anticipated vote on the floor. What will you do at the committee stage? The subcommittee stage? Who will be delivering what messages when?
Grasstops Champions and Grassroots Supporters
An advocacy campaign is a process, and each piece of the process is important. It’s like a runway, where you slowly build up speed and momentum before finally taking off.
First, some definitions. If you work in a trade association, then grasstops advocates and grassroots advocates may mean slightly different things for you than for your colleagues in other organizations.
Grasstops advocates are the business owners and employees in your industry.
They’re the ones who:
- Articulate how public policy affects the industry.
- Educate elected officials.
- Work best while your bill is in the Subcommittee and Committee stage
Grassroots advocates are members of the general public who support your industry.
They’re the ones who:
- Come from a range of backgrounds but all share an interest in what you’re doing.
- Demonstrate the volume of support of (or opposition to) a bill in a Member’s state or district
- Work best when your bill is scheduled to get a floor vote
When Should you Use your Grasstops Advocates vs your Grassroots Advocates?
Always start with your grasstops.
Members of Congress have to monitor thousands of issues. Everything from health care to energy to drug policy and firearms and floods and everything in between. They simply don’t have the bandwidth to keep all of the intricate details of every industry top of mind all the time.
Let’s be honest, they probably don’t know very much about your industry. They may have heard something somewhere, but it won’t be the kind of nuanced knowledge you need them to have in order to make the right decision.
Your grasstops champions’ job is to explain it. A grasstops advocate from the state or district the Member represents will be able to speak the right language and can take the time to walk the Members through the issue. To help them understand how a policy will affect their district and their constituents. This is how a Member learns why a given bill is a good or bad idea for them.
Then, once they understand, when it’s getting close to time for them to vote, that’s when you might consider going loud with the grassroots to make sure they know just how many of their constituents care about it.
If you do this too soon, you can kill your entire campaign. If Members’ voicemails, inboxes, and Twitter profiles are filled with messages from constituents on a topic that they haven’t had time to digest, then they may react too quickly. They won’t have all of the information they need to make an informed decision. They may feel that their backs are against the wall and make a decision based on a knee-jerk reaction. This is exactly what you don’t want.
You need to time your grassroots messages carefully to make the biggest impact, and this will always be after Members have been fully educated on the issue.
So, to reiterate: always start with your grasstops.
Components of a Winning Advocacy Campaign
A well-organized advocacy campaign will have the following components:
- Set the stage with a preliminary letter signed by grasstops advocates.
- Send in the grasstops advocates to meet with Members to brief them on the issues and your industry’s position. If you can, make sure there is a clear ask.
- Mobilize the grassroots to send a clear message that the Member’s constituents feel strongly about the issue.
#1 Get Members’ attention with a letter.
- Condense your issue down to its most comprehensible level and present the impact that the proposed bill will have on your industry.
- Edit and then edit some more. Creating the most impactful language takes time, and you need to make sure this letter captures the most powerful kernel of your message.
- Collect signatures from a number of grasstops advocates. For this stage, some of the best grasstops champions will be the actual business owners in each Legislator’s state or district. The business owners create jobs and invest in the Members’ districts. They make a difference in the daily lives of the Members’ constituents.
- Deliver the letter. Now they’re ready to listen.
#2 Educate the Members with your grasstops advocates.
- Now that you’ve got Members’ attention, set up meetings with your grasstops champions who can explain the issue further.
- Send them in well prepared. Make sure they have all of the information they need to make their meeting a success. This will include detailed data about the economic impact their businesses have in the Member’s district or state, as well as prepared stories to make the data memorable. Coach them on the right language to use, and make sure they know everything about the Member’s previous record on the issue.
- The grasstops advocate’s job is to drive home exactly why the Member should vote a certain way. How the policy will affect their constituents' lives and votes.
- Send in the grasstops early on in the process. Give Members enough time to fully understand the issue.
- Send in the grasstops frequently in the process. Bills take time to fully develop, and you will need to help them along the way with regular input from people who can speak articulately.
- The great thing about sending in grasstops advocates from the Member’s district is that the Members actually want to talk to them. Lobbyists are important resources, but Members want to hear from their constituents. Part of your job as a lobbyist is to find the voices that Members want to hear (and it frequently won’t be yours).
#3 Get loud with your grassroots.
- When you’re close to your tipping point (usually a floor vote), it’s time to drive home the sheer volume of constituents who support (or oppose) the bill.
- This is a strategic decision. You usually only get one chance to flood the airwaves with a massive outpouring of grassroots attention, so use it wisely.
- Every situation is different. You have to determine when the tipping point is. Is a vote imminent? Are opponents owning the message and you’re concerned that your voices aren’t getting through? Is it now or never?
- When you’re ready, use your advocacy software to get those messages out. Good advocacy tools will let you drive supporters to email, call, and send messages over social media.
How to Find Grasstops Advocates
Take your time. Finding the right grasstops champions is a process. Over the years, I have found that the following techniques are usually effective.
Who to look for:
Your best grasstops advocates are people who have a connection to the Member. Did they go to high school together? Does the advocate contribute to the Member’s campaigns? Are they a registered member of the Member’s party? Do they own a business in the Member’s state or district?
As a general rule, you will want higher level employees. The business owners are perfect, but other executives at the company can also be good grasstops champions.
Where to find them:
Your policy events. If someone shows up to learn about recent developments, they are telling you that they care. Talk to them. Find out their level of interest. Ask about their backgrounds and whether they have any connections to Members or their offices.
Your GRM. Every single action taken by every single supporter over the years needs to be logged in your Government Relations Management System. Search your GRM for previous interactions. Look for people who have participated in events. Especially look for people who took the time to customize the messages sent in previous grassroots campaigns.
Surveys. It’s as simple as asking whether someone would be interested in becoming a champion and asking about their previous activities and any connections they have with Members. If you want decent response rates, you will absolutely have to offer incentives for completing the survey. Even if it only takes a few minutes to complete, most people won’t unless there’s something in it for them.
Industry events. Look for speakers at conferences and other events. If someone is articulate and is already communicating to others in the industry, they could be a great champion. Keynote speakers are wonderful, but don’t limit yourself to them. Look at all of the talks, and especially for sessions that have a policy focus. You will find some of your most ardent champions here.
ProTip: Look beyond your own organization's events. Check out the speakers from events organized by adjacent groups.
How to Cultivate your Grasstops Advocates
This is mission critical. Identifying the right people is only half the job. You need to keep them engaged with you year-round. This way, when you need to mobilize them, they’ll be ready.
Bring them in to DC regularly.
Organize Lobby Days throughout the year. Don’t restrict your Lobby Days to only those times when you’re in the middle of something urgent.
This is when you train the advocates on how the legislative process works. You teach them how to speak to Members of Congress. How to explain your industry to someone who doesn’t understand it in nearly the level of detail that you do, but whose vote could have a massive impact on your industry.
Another approach to take is organizing a thank-you Lobby Day. Send your grasstops advocates around to the offices of Members who voted the way you’d hoped they would. Thank them for their support. This is great for building and maintaining relationships. This way, you’re not only setting up meetings when you want to ask for something. You’re setting up meetings when you just want to keep the relationship warm.
Organize policy sessions at every live event you have
Whether it’s a national or regional conference, or just your booth at another trade show, always have a policy session. Update your attendees on what happened recently, what’s happening now, what’s likely to happen in the future.
Give them talking points for them to use throughout the year. Teach them how to describe the industry and the benefits it brings to districts. Get them ready for the times when you’ll need them.
This is great for advocates who may not be able to attend some of your DC events, but who you can call upon to take action when it’s campaign time.
Host regular policy webinars and include policy information in emails
For the same reasons that you always have policy sessions at live events, keep the information flowing throughout the year. Your grasstops champions are busy, but if you give them multiple ways to stay educated and stay engaged, they will take you up on it.
Manage Everything in Your GRM
It’s no secret that taking and maintaining good notes is key to successful advocacy work. A good Government Relations Management System will make your job easier.
Using a GRM will ensure that you always have everything you need at your fingertips. At the planning stages of your campaign, you will be able to pull the right grasstops advocates for each Member. When preparing for a meeting or a message, you will have the complete background on previous interactions with Members. When you arrive at a meeting, knowing everything there is to know makes a great impression on Members and staffers.
Map every relationship. I stressed above how important it is to know how Members are connected to your advocates. You never know when an advocate will casually mention that they went to high school with a Member or a staffer. When they do, take note and add it to the system. A good GRM will allow you to create these kinds of connections with a single action.
Record every meeting. This is possibly one of the most important tasks. Good meeting notes are the bread and butter of grasstops advocacy. Go beyond just what happened at the meeting. Be sure you capture how the Member responded to certain messages. What was their body language like when discussing a given issue. What gets their attention? Taking the time to do this right allows you to build up a highly detailed profile of every Member. You will be better prepared for every future campaign if you let every previous campaign contribute.
Include social media. If your GRM also has a good tracking feature, you’ll get alerts on every time a Member Tweets about something related to your industry. What are they talking about? What opinions are they expressing? Some of the best Tweets are announcements of meetings or site visits or attendance at events that touch you. Carefully recording these can even help introduce you to new grasstops advocates, people who have a relationship with the Member but are not yet your champions.
Keeping your GRM up to date can feel like it’s time-consuming, but it really isn’t. On an average day, you may only need 10-15 minutes worth of note-taking. The results are well worth this mild effort. Missing a single important note could deprive you of critical information a year from now. Capturing one connection between an advocate and a Member could be the key to a meaningful meeting in your next campaign.
Creating a winning grasstops advocacy campaign can be deeply rewarding. I hope these suggestions help your next campaign be successful.
Heather Whitpan is Senior Manager of Government Affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association. Previously, Heather worked at a law firm in Maryland, serving as both the office manager and trust clerk, managing multiple Guardianships of Property accounts for incapacitated adults as well as the administration of several estates.
In her spare time, Heather enjoys spending time with her family and participating in Washington DC's theater community.