To successfully lobby Capitol Hill, step up your social media game
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Too often, political campaigns get all the credit for being cut throat, while legislative and advocacy campaigns are perceived with less intensity. That is partly because nonprofit and industry associations must remain bipartisan, or nonpartisan, and are often responsible for concocting diverse policy and political initiatives with broad outcomes.

On a positive note, this gives government relations professionals more leeway to define their own parameters of success. But this also makes select advocacy organizations more prone to resemble bureaucratic institutions, where innovation can be undervalued and work ethic insubstantial. Naturally, this leaves such organizations with major blind spots to the many digital and social trends that are progressing the industry.

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The world of legislative and issue advocacy has changed dramatically in recent years. Technology has disrupted an industry once dominated by a powerful few, making it easier for organizations of varying sizes to scale their operations and enhance their communications, member outreach and grassroots organizing. Legislative and issue campaigns must learn from political campaigns by being more cognizant of these technological advancements and willing to implement new strategies.

 

Social media

Social media is a prominent channel to facilitate communications between elected officials and their constituents. Many members of Congress have control over their own social media accounts and most hire expert digital strategists to oversee their social media engagement. According to the Congressional Research Service, “electronic technology has reduced the marginal cost of member-constituent communications,” making it easier for elected officials to directly engage with wider political and policy constituencies. In fact, by January 2013, all 100 senators had created their own Twitter accounts, and nearly all members of Congress had at least one social media account.

The idea that social media is becoming increasingly prominent is no novel concept. But surprisingly, most advocacy organizations are reluctant to communicate with elected officials through social media. In a column earlier this year, David Rehr notes that while 70 percent of advocacy organizations use Facebook, only 10 percent utilize the platform to communicate messages directly to congressional offices on a monthly basis. In the same vain, 75 percent use Twitter, but only 18 percent use it to communicate with Congress each month. Given this data, direct social media engagement should be at the forefront of any advocacy organization’s communications strategy.

Email

Email is losing its efficacy as a means of member outreach. Organizations are finding creative ways to converse with their members for marketing, communications and fundraising by changing their email techniques and by using innovative outbound and inbound texting platforms. In a study conducted by eConsultancy, 74 percent of email marketers said that targeted personalization increases customer engagement. To generate greater open and click-through rates, successful email campaigns must feature creative (and often informal) subject lines and clear calls to action. According to Campaign Monitor, emails with personalized subject lines are 26 percent more likely to be opened. Importantly, about 53 percent of all emails are opened on personal devices.

David Pogue wrote in Scientific American, “Today’s instant electronic memos — such as texting and Facebook and Twitter messages — are more direct, more concentrated, more efficient.” He adds that “they dispense with the salutation and the signoff” because already know the “to” and “from.” While the use of mass email will remain essential for government, nonprofit and corporate outreach, Americans are evidently growing more comfortable with direct messaging. Innovative organizations that understand this can vastly improve both internal and external member engagement.

“Fly-Ins”

Fly-ins need to be special. Advocacy vendors are capitalizing on the growing number of congressional “lobby days” by developing applications with digital meeting schedules, videos, and are creating unique collateral to market an organization and make their legislative meetings memorable. In a column in Huffington Post, David Rehr laments that just 25 percent of advocacy organizations use an app for fly-in meeting scheduling and event logistics. With the unpredictability of congressional schedules and the stress that ensues for association staff, legislative staff and constituent attendees, these underutilized apps offer solutions to real problems at reasonable costs.

Unlike with traditional meeting scheduling practices, these platforms allow staff to make timely scheduling updates with notifications, send reminders to attendees, and provide digital collateral, like policy briefs and membership district data, that can be sent directly to congressional staff. While digitizing meeting scheduling is typically met with skepticism, Americans’ incessant demand for efficiency will make these platforms necessary for all congressional fly-ins within the next decade.

Grassroots organizing

Grassroots organizing is facilitated by technologically advanced tools that seamlessly connect large groups of advocates and disseminate unified calls to action. NationBuilder, for example, combines a campaign website with its people database, integrating all information into one system of communication. While this company first gained prominence for its ability to synchronize political campaign operations, its services are now used by growing advocacy organizations for member management, social media matching, email blasting and event organizing.

In the last decade alone, we have witnessed a monumental shift in the way people communicate, practitioners advocate, and elected officials legislate. As a government relations professional, one simply can’t afford to sit on the sidelines while political campaigns and sophisticated issue advocacy campaigns take advantage of the many unique services at their disposal.

Advocacy campaigns matter just as much as political ones. They are led by constituencies whom pay for representation at the federal, state, and local level, and rely on legislative and regulatory victories to improve their everyday lives. Unfortunately, many organizations remain ignorant to transparent social and digital trends, and are reluctant to implement the innovative strategies that are necessary to win. This will change soon.

Brian Kaissi is vice chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network and government affairs manager at the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.