Six Tips to Improve Your Advocacy Effectiveness

Advocacy March 24, 2020 By: Ann Weber

Former government officials offer six ideas to help association advocacy professionals not only explain their organization’s position to legislators and regulators but also influence policy.

Want to know what really works to successfully obtain a government official’s attention and influence public policy? A former U.S. representative, state senator, and a state regulator share practical advice and guidance that reflect their decades of engagement in government relations and public service.

Start Early

Peter Roskam, a former six-term U.S. representative from Illinois who is now a partner with Sidley Austin’s Government Strategies group, said it is best to reach out to your legislator before you have a specific issue to address and to “make it as local as you can.” Meet in the legislator’s district office if possible, and bring individuals from your association who are voters in the district or otherwise have a local connection. Let them know of your organization’s social and economic contributions to their district, including jobs you provide.

“Do your homework beforehand, see what impassions them,” said Dan Kotowski, a former nine-year Illinois state senator and CEO of the nonprofit ChildServ.

Another option is to invite lawmakers and regulators to your association’s office. They are eager to learn about organizations in their district. According to Roskam, a proven effective schedule is 20 minutes to meet your leadership, 20 minutes to walk through your headquarters, and 20 minutes of Q & A with employees.

This arrangement provides a great opportunity for them to obtain a sound understanding of your organization’s focus and the issues of importance to you, while being respectful of their busy schedules.

Even if your issue is complex, it is imperative that you take the time to explain your issue succinctly and craft your messaging appropriately

Be Upfront

“Always be transparent, upfront, and open,” said Ted Nickel, former eight-year Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance and owner of government affairs firm Bodilac Strategies. “Be straightforward and candid when requesting a meeting on a particular subject.”

Work with the regulator’s assistant to find a time that is convenient for the regulator and be clear about the point of the meeting. “Regulators want to help, but to do so they need to be informed in advance so they can get the right staff involved as soon as possible,” said Nickel.

Effectively Craft Messaging

Considering that government officials are constantly managing multiple issues, Kotowski, Roskam, and Nickel advised doing the following to get your message heard:

  • Prepare a one page document to leave behind.
  • Lead with your lead–always begin with your major points.
  • Do a combination of statistics and narrative.
  • Hone it down to your top two to three points.
  • Be simple, clear, and compelling.
  • Tell a story that provides a personal connection.
  • Use varied means of communicating, such as email, Facebook posts, Twitter, and in-person visits.

What to Avoid

Don’t give the legislator or regulator a big book of data, according to Kotowski, and do not expect them to deduce your “ask.” Even if your issue is complex, it is imperative that you take the time to explain your issue succinctly and craft your messaging appropriately.

Don’t get discouraged if a legislator or regulator is distracted when you initially meet with them. Nickel said that they are often preoccupied with critical governing matters requiring their immediate attention. Practically speaking, achieving advocacy goals is more often a marathon than a sprint.

Be These Three Things

Kotowski emphasized the value of being considerate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic:

  • Regulators and legislators are always appreciative when you recognize their multiple responsibilities and time pressures.
  • It is imperative that you realize they need to review different viewpoints when analyzing an issue. Know both the proactive and defensive points of your position. If a legislator is hesitant to voice backing for your position, ask frankly and respectfully, “Sounds like you have concerns. What would it take to support or consider this proposal?”
  • They will notice if you are ardent about your objective. “Embracing your idea is essential,” said Kotowski, and if possible, “have a plan to make yourself stand out and be memorable.”

A final thing that should not be underestimated: the follow-up with staff. “Don’t undervalue the youth of the staff …,” said Roskam. “They are the lens for the policymaker and can be your advocate.”

Ann Weber

Ann Weber is director of government affairs for the Society of Actuaries in Schaumburg, Illinois, and member of ASAE’s Government Affairs and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.