4 foundations of a winning issue advocacy campaign

“I present myself to you in a form suitable to the relationship I wish to achieve with you.”
 – Luigi Pirandello, (b. 1867 – d. 1936)

The Nobel Prize winning playwright Luigi Pirandello was obsessed with the irony of twisting one’s image to meet unobtainable goals, only to fail tragically by not being faithful to one’s true identity. As grassroots and advocacy strategists, we too are sometimes doomed to the same fate. While you may find some merit to dressing up your policy issue to appeal to your audience, a coordinated mission-driven approach executed with discipline more often achieves far happier results.

A winning issue advocacy campaign presents the issue in a way that resonates with the audience’s own self-interests, while keeping the overall message in line with the organization’s ultimate mission. Such a campaign reflects a desire to create a mutually beneficial relationship that, over time, achieves tangible benefits for both parties. How does an organization achieve this?

Below are four tenets for creating the foundation of an effective issue advocacy campaign. These tenets are not meant to keep you from the tactical necessity of launching a campaign, and no one piece is more important than the other. They are, however, meant to help you form a guiding set of principles to keep you from making (sometimes ineffectual) tactical choices driven by need rather than strategy.

(Design by Sara Carlson)

(Design by Sara Carlson)

Advocacy is part of a continuum of communications, not a standalone effort. As a policy think tank or organization, communications is often driven by the need to amplify your voice and promote your message around a single policy debate during the legislative session. It is important, however, to view communications as having several differentiated goals over a much longer term, with one phase building on the next: 1.) branding, 2.) education, 3.) recruitment, and 4.) activation. Many organizations often jump right to activation – hoping to gain traction with a sudden release of fresh content (such as a new economic report). Unfortunately, releasing a report is not an actionable occurrence in the minds of your target audience, as much as it is essential to your organization. It is seldom that easy to get your target audience to take action on a policy issue with just a simple one-time ask. Instead, your organization must continually build your brand recognition, educate your audience about the importance of the issue over time, grow a base of supporters via year-round touch points, and, once appropriate, seek to elicit grassroots action.

Correctly identify your opposition and understand their arguments. Think you know your worst enemy? Think again. In today’s politically stratified world, there are no longer “typical” constituents. Alliances have been shattered and coalitions remixed. Complex new paradigms abound on who may support an infrastructure spending increase but vehemently oppose a sales tax hike, for instance. The only way to understand who stands in your way—and why they think the way they do—is through opinion research. Research lets you identify both your and your opposition’s best messages, as well as define that base of supporters. Even more revelatory, research helps you identify what these people have in common other than your issue. Understanding your audience’s similarities becomes the proxy for finding advocates in today’s complex world.

Find your most likely activists first and give them the attention they deserve. In politics, we like to say that there is a spectrum of voters who will support your candidacy. On one end of that spectrum is your mother; on the other end of that spectrum is your opponent’s mother. And then there is everyone in between. Who’s next in line after you’ve (hopefully) secured your mother’s vote? You must invest in a plan to reach your core audience before attempting to convert the undecided. Don’t take your base for granted; they will not be vocal unless you cultivate them to be. They will not just “know what to do” when “the time is right.” On another note, don’t assume that your issue is too niche to find a base audience. There is an audience out there for everything. You just have to find them.

Create medium aware content. Good messaging may be universal, but good content is not. Once you have identified the platforms that are best to reach your audiences, be ready to create content that is medium specific. Content meant to be consumed on a mobile device should be specifically created for small screens – light on copy and heavy on imagery. Facebook content is not akin to Twitter or Pinterest content. Consider the time of day and the context in which the message will be consumed. For example, parents are most likely to be online during the day at work and then past bedtime at home. So an email to a personal address or Facebook post after 9 p.m. will likely reach a lot more parents than one at 3 p.m., when afterschool activities are in full swing. If you are creating a transit ad or morning rush radio ad, reference the fact that the reader or listener is probably in the middle of their commute.

Now that you are ready to begin, how do you know your campaign is working? Success can be measured on many levels. In the short term, have you created adequate opportunity for interaction and conversation with your organization on your policy issue? In the medium term, have you elicited specific actions from your audience, such as signing a petition or showing up at a rally? In the long term, have you raised awareness around your policy issue in general? Most importantly – have you been true to your organization’s mission and brand? As Pirandello spent a lifetime expounding, to warp ones persona to fit another’s desires is tempting but most often disastrous. The answers to these questions will help you monitor and adjust your efforts.