How to Move the Dial on Advocacy During a Pandemic

Ory June 23, 2020 By: Mike Whatley and Jeb Ory

When COVID-19 struck earlier this year, it hit restaurants hard. The National Restaurant Association knew it had to act for its members, so it used grassroots tools to secure action on Capitol Hill.

Few sectors of the economy have been harder hit by the COVID-19 crisis than America’s restaurants. Overnight, an industry that included more than 1 million locations around the country and some 15.6 million employees closed entirely or shifted to takeout, delivery, and drive-thru operations with skeleton crews.

The resulting damage has been profound. More than two-thirds of the industry’s workforce—8 million employees—have been laid off, and four in 10 restaurants closed their doors. Revenue loss could grow as high as $240 billion this year, roughly one-third of the industry’s entire revenue in a typical year.

With its 500,000 members facing a crisis, the National Restaurant Association had to step up for them—fast—or miss an opportunity to galvanize voices in support of its lobbying activity before Congress and the administration. The organization provided its members with needed information, a path to engage, and the right tools to unify disparate groups of advocates around the country into a mobilized force with one voice. What follows is a look at the steps they took, as well as lessons that can help other associations as they advocate during this unique period in history.

Restaurants Act

The National Restaurant Association turned to its grassroots network to communicate its needs to policymakers—and the network responded with a roar.

The association’s initial campaigns targeted addressing needs of members through legislation winding through Congress, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The National Restaurant Association knew framing the issue in personal terms would really move the dial.

The group asked industry leaders and employees to share personal stories using Phone2Action, a platform that helps organizations connect members to elected officials. In the five days ending March 20, the National Restaurant Association gained more than 30,000 new advocates and made more than 87,000 connections with lawmakers. However, it was not the only group making advocacy moves: Phone2Action’s State of Advocacy data shows that organizations launched 1,000 advocacy campaigns between March 17 and 24, the week leading up to the CARES Act passage.

The National Restaurant Association launched a new website for sharing stories, In the end, almost 115,000 supporters took action, sending nearly 312,000 personalized and customized emails to members of Congress.

The National Restaurant Association also launched a new website for sharing stories, In the end, almost 115,000 supporters took action, sending nearly 312,000 personalized and customized emails to members of Congress. This amount of organic activity was one of the highest-ever measured for a trade association in one week, according to Phone2Action data.

The contact paid off, as the CARES Act was filled with provisions that could help small businesses, including restaurants. The sustained efforts also helped position industry employees and allies as advocates who should help craft the government’s solution. Marvin Irby, the association’s interim president and CEO, was included on a White House COVID-19 recovery task force. So were 23 members of the food and beverage industries.

Lessons Learned

There are lessons in the National Restaurant Association’s approach for organizations that need to protect their own industries. Here’s a look at some of them:

Use your grassroots. While the National Restaurant Association is no stranger in the halls of Congress, the impact of roughly 400,000 communiques from owners, chefs, line cooks, wait staff, and others nationwide was undeniable. The association activated members in nearly every congressional district, and their personal stories resonated.

Know your ask. The association created its own Blueprint for Recovery, giving both lawmakers and its own members a strategy to rally behind. It allowed advocates to support very specific initiatives and amplify the association’s requests in the voice of constituents.

Generate data. The association surveyed its membership to bring additional information to their campaigns, some of it dramatic. For example, 60 percent of restaurant owners said they may not be able to keep employees on the payroll, even with the federal assistance in the CARES Act.

Amplify the message. Across every channel and communications medium, the association amplified its core grassroots message. It promoted the ask on social media, in interviews, and in communications with legislators. A simple and clear message was repeated on every channel so no potential opportunity was missed to engage and mobilize even a small number of activists.

Be tenacious. The National Restaurant Association has not stopped its grassroots advocacy efforts, continuing to push for measures that will bring relief to its embattled industry. Its constant presence has put the industry in the spotlight as one that needs government help to recover moving forward. The association has also grown its database of activists fourfold. As legislation continues to move, it is tapping these advocates on a regular basis and has adopted a regular cadence of communication.

Mike Whatley

Mike Whatley is vice president for state and local affairs at the National Restaurant Association in Washington, DC.

Jeb Ory

Jeb Ory is cofounder and chief product officer at Capitol Canary (formerly Phone2Action) in Washington, DC.