Visiting Capitol Hill for advocacy? Make it more than just another 'lobby day'

For some, a “lobby day” is just an in-and-out routine exercise of an association or corporation: quick training followed by a series of half hour meetings with members or staff of Congress that sticks to the recycled talking points, maybe a reception, and then out on the next flight at Reagan National.

As the advocacy world has evolved and become more competitive between organizations vying for attention of lawmakers, we now have an influx of resources, time, and attention to detail to the once singular lobby day. Instead of a lobby day, organizations will make a visit to Capitol Hill where grassroots and grasstops advocates have the floor to tell their personal stories, relay their legislative priorities, and attempt to sway the hearts and minds of elected officials.

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The bar has been raised and the quantity and quality of the visits has changed because of more infrastructure around the advocacy community and the scarcity of time and demand of lawmakers. The resource influx along with experienced communications consultants, lobbyists, and creative and technology vendors has resulted in the transformation of the lobby day into a full-fledged campaign.

 

After the dust settles and members of Congress are acclimated, “advocacy season” begins when thousands of advocates supporting different causes head to the Hill. Some wear coordinated hats, scarves, ties, lapel pins, and name tags, or they bring along a celebrity as the champion of their cause to gain that extra edge or get a little more attention than the groups before or after them.

What can groups do to promote their lobby day to make it more of a campaign or multi-day experience? It is important to leverage non-physical attendees by creating an action alert, call-in campaign, social media campaign, or even a “virtual” lobby day to amplify the voices of your members or advocates that are actually coming to Washington to meet with a lawmaker or staff. A campaign like this can be launched in advance or the day of the lobby day to provide non-physical attendees with a better sense of community and inclusion.

Members and staff of Congress should not be surprised to see members of your organization on the day of the fly-in. Sending several communications to different staff from schedulers to issue area legislative staff to alert them that your advocates are coming and also provide them with materials relevant to your meeting is essential. Running ads in the DC area publications, radio outlets, or even micro-targeting some ads in high traffic areas on the commute to Capitol Hill or on Pandora and Spotify, leading up to the day when your advocates arrive can also amplify your organization’s presence.

On the “big day” that advocates meet with lawmakers, staff should collect memorable stories, videos, pictures, testimonials, and resources that can be used throughout the year to promote the organization’s grassroots programs. The actual lobby day is the time when grassroots professionals and other staff can collect marketing resources for the rest of the advocacy season and realistically most of the year. You can also leverage the platforms of your advocates by getting them to “take action” on any existing alerts while they are energized and enthusiastic about their participation as a citizen advocate.

Consider creating a social media toolkit for advocates and get them to take pictures and share them on their own social media platforms and have them share with or tag the congressional office. Getting your advocates to do a “Throwback Thursday” weeks later after the big day will resurface your organization on the peripheral of the office. The photos can also be shared in any “thank you” or follow-up messages to staff following the meeting. There are a multitude of low-cost tactics that can be used throughout the year with few resources or time exhausted if properly planned and coordinated.

Efforts back home after a lobby day are also critical to the success of your campaign. Reaching out to in-state congressional staff about your key messages as well as local media — radio, TV and newspapers — can keep the momentum going and create new relationships for future initiatives. Holding an event, tour of your facility, news announcement, or meet and greet locally with your senator or representative can broaden your campaign.

Lobby days or Hill visits should not be one and done every year. These meetings should be a culmination of preparation, but they must also part of a coordinated campaign that does not end as your advocates exit Cannon, Rayburn, Hart or any of the other congressional offices. A vast amount of resources, infrastructure, time, and expertise has professionalized the advocacy community to the point where the status quo is no longer acceptable. Creativity, coordination, and a holistic view of the calendar will give your organization the ultimate edge it needs when dealing with Congress.

Mike Fulton is director of the Washington office of the Asher Agency and professor of public affairs in the integrated marketing communications program at West Virginia University.

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.


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