Old-school grassroots activism is back in action in American politics

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The field of grassroots advocacy has exploded over the past decade. Previously, most grassroots staff were assistants to the federal lobbying team or PAC operation and were seen more as an administrative position that would write a newsletter or handle the hotel logistics for a lobby day. Now, with the expansion of technology and the incredible value in grassroots advocacy campaigns, we are now in an era where grassroots professionals are at the top of their game and making a difference through a variety of tactics.

There is no doubt that technology has greatly expanded the grassroots advocacy playbook. Activists around the country can be mobilized in a matter of minutes and thousands of phone calls, emails, tweets, and shares can happen in seconds. With this ease of access for grassroots activity, the volume has put a strain on local, state and federal elected officials to deal with the influx.

{mosads}While this is great for democracy, it puts legislative and executive offices and their staff in a bind as they struggle to deal with the inundation of messages with stagnant budget, staff and technology resources. These offices often categorize these substantial amounts of messages into buckets and are not able to handle them in a more personalized way like did so in the past. This dilutes the grassroots advocates message effectiveness and often minimizes the activist’s voice.


However, with this change in technology, it now opens up the door for more traditional tactics to cut through the noise and amplify a message and it is evident that the new administration and Congress are listening to these more traditional grassroots tactics.

Mobilize at town halls

The rise of Donald Trump can directly be attributed to grassroots activism at local events and meetings. Born out of the Tea Party movement, town hall activism has heightened to a fevered pitch and the voices (and shouts) at these forums is leaving elected officials and their staffs with the challenging task of managing the crowds and the tenor of these meetings.

However, time and time again, we are seeing elected officials on both sides of the aisle take heed of these grassroots voices that affect their opinions, despite the bluster they may have in Washington or at the state capitol. It is interesting to see how the more liberal side is now taking plays directly from the Tea Party playbook, actively mobilizing activists to fill town halls and coordinating messaging, signs and even chants.

These town hall meetings go hand in hand with rallies, which have already been witnessed across the country. There is no doubt that you will continue to see large crowds at rallies and town halls that are the first fronts in the advocacy wars following the election and new administration.

Use the fax machine

Activists are also smartly looking at creative, immediate and impactful ways to get messages to the offices of elected officials. One of the more arcane but effective ways to get messages across has been fax machines. Many state legislatures are using fax machines, and a coordinated campaign to send dozens of fax messages on a particular issue can not only annoy staff who are trying to find new fax toner cartridges but also get them to take notice of something else besides emails. While this may not work for all legislatures or congressional offices, it is a sneaky tactic that can help get a bill to the next step. This tactic is best used when it is refined to a specific committee or even a chairperson of a committee

Pick up the telephone

The power of phone calls has made a huge comeback in grassroots advocacy.  Technology improvements such as text to call or online calling have made it even easier. With emails inundating offices and the quick pace of this current Congress, phone calls are now back in style. During the American Health Care Act debate, congressional offices were crying mercy over the sheer amount of phone calls from the pro-ACA forces.

The hardest part for grassroots professionals is convincing advocates that phone calls are just as quick and easy as an email. Amateur advocates often feel that calling their elected officials is intimidating, so advocacy pros need to be sure to make call scripts quick, easy and fun to report. The power of phone calls will continue to be high and it will be interesting to see how campaign tactics adapt with modern technology and intake methods.

Go slow to go fast

Lastly, we are seeing a rise in the use of snail mail to get a point across. After the ricin terror case that shut down congressional mail in 2013, there was a definite move away from mailing letters. However, as emails and phone calls overwhelmed congressional technology and staff resources, traditional mail is now coming back. Unfortunately, letters in envelopes still need to go through an irradiation process before they are handled in Congress, leading to a delay for the letters.

However, postcards can be expedited and will also get the same point across. The key piece for effective postcard advocacy is to be sure that the messages are handwritten and not typed. This signals to the elected officials that it was an actual constituent and not a computer that created that message. Also, be sure that postcard has the constituents’ address so it can be validated and responded to by the office. Having advocates send postcards while offsite at a convention, trade show or organizational meeting can also lead to more coordination of efforts and more of a full-fledged campaign feel.

Look to the road ahead

Technology in the grassroots advocacy space is still evolving and will accelerate our democracy for a long time ahead. The past year in campaigning and in congressional action is proving that these tried and true grassroots advocacy tactics are not only working but are also changing the political landscape. Grassroots advocacy professionals need to be sure that they are using all tools at their disposal and not just going for the lowest time and cost tactics like email or social media. A well-rounded campaign will get advocate voices heard and also make our democracy work for everyone.

Marty McFly would be dazzled by the advances in technology, citizen engagement and also in how old is sometimes new again.

Joseph Franco is the Vice President of Grassroots and Internal Advocacy at the American Diabetes Association and advisory board member of the Grassroots Professional Network.

Joshua Habursky is director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at West Virginia University.

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

Tags Advocacy campaign Congress Donald Trump Donald Trump Grassroots Politics Tea party town halls
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