Quardricos Driskell is legislative and political affairs manager at the American Urological Association in Linthicum, Maryland, and a member of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.
Pivoting to virtual fly-ins has been a learning curve for many associations. Discovered through trial and error, these six steps can help your online advocacy run smoothly.
Citizen participation in advocacy and communicating with government, especially lawmakers, is the essential foundation of American democracy. While COVID-19 has brought many challenges, it is still important for individuals, associations, interest groups, and corporations to engage with lawmakers. Authentic messages and meticulous planning are the key ingredients to running a successful virtual fly-in, as they establish and cultivate your organization’s unique voice. In this article, we share lessons learned from our virtual fly-ins.
Be concise in your congressional ask. Traditionally, associations have at least four congressional asks. In a virtual environment, it is best to limit those to one or two legislative priorities. The issues should be germane to your membership, ensuring that you don’t overwhelm advocates or congressional staff. However, limiting your asks should not lead to neglecting other legislative priorities: Challenge yourself to find creative and interesting ways to promote other priorities after your virtual fly-in. For instance, the American Urological Association dedicated one day during our virtual summit as an “Advocacy Day,” where we taught our advocates how to engage their members beyond the virtual fly-ins.
Broaden your advocacy efforts. Virtual platforms will allow you to reach members who might not otherwise be able to travel to Washington. Reach out to those who have an interest in advocacy, but can’t get to DC, and train them on your virtual meeting platform of choice. Practicing with these platforms in the context of the annual fly-in can increase your advocates’ confidence and comfort interacting with staff and elected officials in this format. Once they become virtual meeting pros, they may be more likely to set up additional meetings with their legislators after your virtual fly-in.
Nothing is worse than having a virtual fly-in where your members can’t login or they need to download certain browsers in order to participate.
Expand your event timeline. Given the Zoom and computer fatigue that everyone is experiencing, space your fly-in out over the course of several days or even a full week. Be mindful of the amount of time everyone is spending in front of a computer when it comes to training participants and allocating time for them to take meetings. Spacing the event over multiple days can increase the likelihood of meeting with key offices and staffers who handle your issues. The American Society of Civil Engineers creates an option to participate for those who may not be able to squeeze in a meeting. As part of its 2020 fly-in, it pivoted to a “Week of Advocacy” as the entire Capitol complex shut down in March. The week encouraged members to engage offices via email with the congressional ask and request a meeting in the near future.
Get leadership buy-in when planning. Solicit ideas from your leadership about times, dates, programming, and scheduling that works best for them. Meet and plan early for your virtual fly-in; these events are just as labor-intensive as bringing your members to Capitol Hill. Consider prerecording content to avoid technological glitches during your live sessions. This also allows speakers to present while simultaneously engaging participants via a live chat. In addition to a live Q&A session, make sure to provide an interactive experience.
Address technology issues upfront. Nothing is worse than having a virtual fly-in where your members can’t login or they need to download certain browsers in order to participate. To mitigate this, develop a user-friendly guide for your members, have a conversation with vendors to assess which browsers are compatible with their platforms, and manage expectations by letting members know that any time technology is involved, there might be a few glitches. Better yet, have a practice run with your participants to review the technology, discuss your priority issues, and go over the schedule. You’ll provide some valuable advocacy training while ensuring that your participants are up to speed on the technology.
Assess your event once it concludes. Examine how your members engaged. Did you see new faces, or was participation limited to your core group of advocates? Evaluate their comfort with the digital advocacy tools and adjust future pre-event training accordingly. Consider whether to retain a virtual component of your fly-in beyond the pandemic, and what that might look like. Also be sure to reflect on the event in the months that follow by assessing how your virtual fly-in moved the needle on your issues.
In the near term, we cannot return to the way fly-in were conducted in the past. Associations will need to be innovative and flexible as they conceptualize future fly-ins; the future of our democracy depends on it.