As part of their Advocacy Rising program, the good folks at SalsaLabs asked me to contribute the piece below, which first appeared on Salsa Commons. One thing I left out — nonprofits have to be careful what they say in an election year if they mention candidates. The exact rules depend on your IRS nonprofit status (i.e., which flavor of nonprofit you are), so check with the lawyers early on so that you know the ground rules. While you’re waiting to hear back from them, be sure to check out our in-person discussion on Thursday.
Riding an Electoral Wave: How Election-Year Politics Can Promote Your Issues
It’s an election year! With a gridlocked Congress! Doesn’t leave much room for issue-advocacy, right? Wrong: the long months of politicking in a presidential election year can actually give advocacy organizations great opportunities to boost the prominence of their issues — BUT only if they’re ready.
The Media Dynamic
Perhaps you’ve noticed that political coverage has certain dynamic, one that might be described as lemming-like. I.e., at any given point in the campaign, political reporters tend to cluster around a relatively small number of stories that themselves constantly change. One week it’s Newt Gingrich’s jewelry purchases, another it’s Mitt Romney’s apparent joy at firing people, but don’t worry — reporters will eventually circle around to Barack Obama’s birth certificate so he won’t feel lonely. What unifies most of these stories is that they’re ephemeral: they blow up big one week (or day or hour) and are nearly forgotten the next. Though collectively they gradually come to define the candidates, few stick around long enough to matter much on their own. Another common characteristic: they’re very much in-the-moment, driven by gaffes, attacks and other immediate developments in the campaigns, and hence difficult to predict in advance.
Ironically, the speed with which these stories brew up can actually work to advocacy organizations’ advantage. Reporters and bloggers won’t be experts in most of the issues involved, so they’ll be scrambling to get information to fill out their stories. And if you’re ready when one of your issues pops, YOU can be the beneficiary of their ignorance/hunger for content. Here’s what you’ll need to take advantage of the election-year media dynamic to promote your issues and connect with new supporters.
The moment a reporter calls is NOT when you want to start pulling your content together — by then it’s probably too late. Instead, start looking NOW at issues talked about on the campaign trail, and brainstorm ones that MIGHT come up. Then, think through your own areas of emphasis and expertise and how they might connect with topics the political chattering class is likely to care about. An undocumented housekeeper or two is likely to surface, for instance, so an immigrant-rights group would want to be ready to ride that wave when it rolls in. For another example, look at the recent shots Mitt Romney’s rivals have taken at his corporate-raider past, which have angles for groups working on issues ranging from social justice to corporate governance to the economic safety net.
Next, you’ll need to be able to explain your positions in a hurry. Start with readily digestible content, things like factsheets and infographics that a reporter or blogger can read and cite on the run. And don’t stash them in a drawer; get ’em out there now, on your website, blog and social network presences. Why? You want your content to be easy to find at the moment the issue blows up — Google is a reporter’s best friend, and your materials will need to be as prominent as possible online BEFORE they’re needed.
Content is only half of the equation: YOU want to be the one reporters and bloggers come to, not your enemies (friendly or otherwise), and a good way to make that happen is to make sure they know who you are beforehand. It starts with classic, traditional media relations, the kind of thing PR people have been doing in one form or another forever. I.e., take reporters out for coffee, send them tips and other useful information, interact with them on Twitter or on their own blogs, etc. Top-level political reporters can be difficult to pin down, since they’re typically on the road with the campaigns (and are oh-so-important as well), so definitely branch out by trying to connect with bloggers, tweeters and other online influentials who might have an interest in your issues — it’s time-consuming, but it’s one of the few ways to make your materials stand out from the constant information-clutter in which political junkies constantly drown. When your pitch email (or tweet or Facebook message) arrives, you want people to recognize your name and take the time to actually read it.
Nonprofit advocacy groups aren’t always quick on their feet — our institutional cultures frequently favor consensus, and they also too often require ridiculously complex approval processes for anything going out to the public. But campaign media coverage of your issues is likely to roll in fast, and if you miss the wave you’ll be left floating all alone in a big, wide ocean. One reason to have content built in advance is that the hour or two you need to get something approved by your Executive Director could easily be enough for you to miss a reporter or blogger’s deadline!
In fact, one of the hardest parts of preparing for election year may be getting senior staff buy-in at your organization. They’ll need to ready to approve things fast, and for some people that can be a shock. So as you prepare your content, also try to prepare your people for the need to let you use it quickly.
Seizing the Moment
Okay, it worked! An issue we care about is blowing up in the press, and we’re ready to take full advantage. Time to pick up a big shotgun and blast your information out in all directions. Email reporters and bloggers behind the scenes, definitely, but also use your own channels — get your critical pieces out on Facebook and Twitter, for a start. Also think about publishing something on your blog right away with a title that connects the breaking story with your own information — now that Google is including just-published stories in its main search pages, a timely post can rocket to the top of the results. And don’t forget your supporters: use your social media channels and email list to ASK them to help spread the word. You never know who knows whom, and a link posted on a supporter’s page might just reach a blogger who’ll pick it up and run with it.
Finally, if you do catch the media wave and end up in stories across the country, do your best to capitalize on the attention. Your fact sheets DO link back to your website, right? And the site has prominent email and social media “follow” buttons on every page, plus a big “donate” button? If you have the public’s attention, don’t let it go to waste! Sign up every supporter you can, and connect with every reporter/blogger/tweeter/activist you can track down who’s talking about you. These moments don’t come along often, but they can transform your issue — and your organization. Seize that day!
Advocacy Rising Events on Thursday, January 19:
Webinar: Advocacy RISING in 2012: Is your organization ready?
Third Thursday Training (DC): Advocacy Rising Discussion: This moderated discussion will explore how can activists can harness this unprecedented energy to move policy while strengthening our organizations during this heated presidential election year.
From “Arab Spring” to rallies and movements bubbling up across the US, people around the world are organizing and demanding change. Whether your organization is local or national, with the right tools and techniques, you can tap into the rising tide of advocacy and make your voice heard. Join Salsa as we explore how advocacy is rising in 2012 through articles, webinar and live events.