While government relations teams pivoted to virtual advocacy at the start of the pandemic, more adjustments are emerging. A look at how GR pros are changing the ways members engage, the ways their associations tell stories, how they frame issues, and more.
It’s become cliché by now, but the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, including how association government relations teams do their work. Looking ahead, when things settle into whatever the “new normal” will look like, what will we take from this experience? How will our jobs be different?
ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council (GRAPAC) Thought Leadership and Content subgroup had a discussion around these questions and reached out to our respective networks for their input. We discovered the following insights.
Virtual Increases Engagement
Although something is lost in not having in-person meetings, most of us have pivoted to virtual fly-ins. However, a virtual meeting can get more engagement from members who typically are unable to fly into DC. Also, by scheduling a series of “virtual fly-in” meetings, association members are able to meet with a member of Congress, rather than their staff, as was typical during in-person fly-ins. That has been impressive to our members and increased the perceived value of the program within the association.
“With advocacy in Washington being shut down, the value of holding local, virtual congressional, and state meetings has shown that you can be nimble and meet with staff in a new and meaningful way,” said Joe Franco, vice president of grassroots at LeadingAge.
Associations have powerful stories to tell, but it’s important to consider the medium you’re using to share them and adjust your message accordingly.
Betsy Vetter, the field grassroots director for the American Heart Association, noted that more members are interested in engaging. “Since the onset of the pandemic and now with the social unrest, I think we are seeing an increase in the number of people wanting to engage,” she said. “People are involved and speaking out. With more and more people homebound, I think you are seeing people seeking out opportunities to continue to use their voices.”
Focus on the Now
If your association’s legislative priorities don’t align with current events, it’s time to reconsider and adapt. Ned Monroe, CAE, president and CEO of the Vinyl Institute, said associations should “strategically prioritize issues to current events” since elected officials are hyper-focused on critical issues like economic recovery.
“Remain focused on helping solve these current problems, particularly as it intersects with your priority issues,” he said. “For example, some groups are heavily engaged in visa issues because they are trying to reshore manufacturing to the United States to meet critical supply chain issues for PPE [personal protective equipment]. Restricting L1 visas could slow this manufacturing reshoring.”
Mind the budget
Most associations are struggling, having lost revenue from their in-person events or declining membership. While many are looking to cut costs, Monroe suggested caution.
“Don’t cut so deep that it causes fundamental harm to programs,” he said. “Sure, be frugal and tighten your budget belt. However, stepping away from government relations in times of crisis will harm your ability to tell your stories, solve problems, and impact decisions. Cuts too deep will hurt current and future programs. They will also diminish the value your members desire.”
Associations have powerful stories to tell, but it’s important to consider the medium you’re using to share them and adjust your message accordingly. For example, you’ll want a more photo-heavy post for Instagram, while Twitter has a strict character limit.
“There is hardly a substitute for good face-to-face interaction, a sit down meeting, a chat over some coffee, or a tour of a member’s facilities,” said John Torres, CAE, executive director of Maryland Farm Bureau, Inc. “Associations that rely on face-to-face grassroots advocacy have to find ways to leverage technology to meet the demands of advocacy. Various communication alternatives should be integrated into your outreach strategy, including video storytelling, webinars, and consistent online community interactions. We all need to dive into the deep end of the technology pool to get the job done. Those who don’t will get left behind and left unheard in the public square.”
Give Advocates a Break
Maria Matthews, CAE, senior manager, grassroots programs and state relations, at the American Society of Civil Engineers and GRAPAC member, stressed the importance of managing your volunteer network. “While interest in public policy and engagement have certainly increased, there is still value in fallow periods for grassroots and grasstops networks,” she said. “In late March/April, we reached out to our network of member advocacy leaders to lay out our vision for their engagement. We forecasted potential peaks and valleys for their engagement. It’s been helpful because whenever we’ve gathered them for briefings and broadcast other calls to action, they seem fairly quick to engage.”
Secure a Seat at the Table
Julie M. Broadway, CAE, president of the American Horse Council & American Horse Council Foundation, predicts there won’t be large coalition group meetings once in-person meetings resume. Rather, she anticipates small meetings with less than four people, using social distancing. If that is the case, it will be even more important to have a literal “seat at the table” in priority coalition meetings.
We are living in extraordinary times and have had to get creative on a number of fronts, including advocacy. The most successful of these adaptations will certainly become part of our government relations programs in the future.