Commentary / Maggie Brandenburg

Advocacy and Influence: How to do it right

Imagine where we’d be today if no one had ever advocated for equal civil rights or women’s suffrage. For centuries, advocates have pushed, prodded, poked and shoved society toward pivotal change. Today’s advocates and issue-driven organizations still do important work, but the game has changed.

In the past, advocates relied on word-of-mouth, traditional media coverage and face-to-face communication. In today’s information age – characterized by the rapid exchange of ideas thanks to advances in communication technology – less-seasoned advocates tend to mistakenly minimize and even ignore traditional methods and jump straight to the fun stuff, like social media. While an issue-driven campaign may benefit significantly from the use of online communication tools, successful advocacy in the modern age requires combining the old with the new.

As you dive deeper into the profession, keep these four tips in mind:

Be newsworthy

Reporters judge the newsworthiness of an issue based on five criteria: timing, significance, proximity, prominence and level of human interest. Use these standards to your advantage by creating news yourself or tying your issue to a hot topic or story.

For example, let’s say you advocate for better food safety practices, and a massive outbreak of food borne illness begins to make its way across the country. Your message now meets each of the five criteria of newsworthiness. Take action by submitting an op-ed to a newspaper, or pitch an interview for a segment discussing relevant information explaining how your organization combats such outbreaks.

Follow the news and look for timely opportunities to showcase your expertise and promote your organization’s (now relevant!) message.

FaceTime (the old-fashioned way)

While smartphones, tablets and computers serve as convenient and valuable communication tools, they often cause advocates to neglect personal communication. Step out from behind your screen and meet with the government leaders and community influencers who hold the authority to bring about meaningful change. It may seem daunting, but a successful meeting boils down to these simple steps:

  • Do your research. What position does this person hold on your issue? Go to the meeting prepared with three main points or arguments and supporting facts tailored to his or her point of view. And most importantly, be specific about what you want this person to do for you (i.e. sponsor a bill, vote a certain way, inform others about the issue, etc.).
  • Be flexible. Politicians and other prominent leaders maintain very busy lives. Schedules can change at a moment’s notice. Make sure you accommodate those changes graciously.
  • Talk to staff members. These people typically decide what issues make it to their boss’ desks. Discuss your issue with them and leave your information for the head honcho to see later.
  • Be succinct. Remember, you’re dealing with very busy people, and you’re not the only one who wants a piece of them. Limit yourself to about 30 minutes and stick to the three main points you prepared beforehand. Be mindful of the time, and leave room at the end for questions and discussion.
  • Follow up. Send an email thanking the politician or leader for his or her time and reiterate your main points, while also reminding the person of any action they promised to take. Hold the leader accountable by continuing to check in periodically on his or her progress, and be sure to share new information with the person as it becomes available.
Learn from Congress (believe it or not, this is actually possible)

As the recent government shut down shows, civility and compromise remain vital for any sort of progress. Every issue has two sides, and your opposition likely brings just as much passion to the table as you do. Dealing with the other side of the coin sometimes necessitates a strong stance, but, at the very least, you should always show respect for your opponent’s views. The majority of the nation shies away from extremist groups (think PETA), so it could benefit your organization to take a more moderate, but firm, position. Lastly, keep in mind that compromise often leads to great gains; if both sides meet in the middle, progress is much more likely.

Use social media (correctly)

Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest represent a new form of word-of-mouth marketing. These sites give you access to millions of users itching to weigh in, take a side and re-post, re-tweet or re-pin something that resonates with them. These platforms present viable opportunities to get your message out. But before you begin a social media campaign, ask yourself several questions including:

Is social media appropriate for your issue? If it is, which platforms are most relevant?

What is going to be most manageable for your organization?

What tangible benefits will you gain by building and mobilizing an online following? If the benefits are not material to your goals, then you should rethink your approach.

The bottom line: If you want to be successful in this line of work, don’t disregard the more traditional methods leveraged by our forbearers. Bring the old and new together, and start nudging society in your direction.