May 28, 2020

Advocacy in the Time of COVID-19

Personal Relationships are Paramount

Congressional offices in Washington DC remain closed to the public so more organizations and people are relying on emails and social media.

Congressional offices in Washington DC remain closed to the public so more organizations and people are relying on emails and social media.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced our world to maintain productivity while working remotely. During the past two months, we have all had a learning curve, but we now have more insights into what works and what does not. This is also true for advocacy efforts, where the challenge to be heard in congressional and policymaking offices has become harder. That is why we must look at what has worked in the past and consider innovative strategies to be heard as we move forward in an environment where in-person access to elected officials remains limited.

Some Hill staffers have recently expressed concerns about the increasing number of communications they are now receiving electronically. Congressional offices in Washington, D.C. remain closed to the public so more organizations and people are relying on emails and social media to deliver their advocacy messages. Whether these communications are effective may depend on their quality and on who is sending them. Mass emails conveying the same messaging across the Hill are likely to just be deleted or remain unanswered. However, personalized communications from known contacts or clearly identified constituents may still be effective.

Congressional leaders need to make important policy decisions to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 and to keep our country running effectively. To do that, they still need to hear from constituents, organizations and people who can help them understand their interests and what is at stake. Advocates unable to meet on the Hill are now using emails, websites, and social media as a cost-effective way to communicate from home, but that is not enough.

Digital communications may have been effective in the past, but as more and more organizations are depending on these practices, these communications start getting lost in the noise. That is why, now more than ever, personal relationships are critical to advocacy success.

Those who have relationships with members of Congress or their staff should be focused on nurturing and keeping those relationships strong. Telephone calls, teleconferences, or texts to mobile phones may be the most personal ways to accomplish that in the current environment. If you need email to connect or send information, then consider adding your picture to email or social media messages so you are easily recognizable as someone the recipients know. Use your relationships to offer help, provide data or resources, or share intel that your contacts may find useful during these challenging times, even if you have no current ask. Recognize that Members or staffers have limited time to spend on your communication so be concise, yet comprehensive enough to present the full story in one look and include a point of contact for follow-on questions.

Organizations or advocates pursuing new issues or who have limited Hill contacts should focus on building relationships while advocating for your issues. Instead of sending an email to a Member’s office, try starting the relationship with a phone call and then follow up with an email referencing your call. Be organized before the call and try to establish yourself as an issue expert and potential resource for that office. Localize the information you provide to that Member’s state or local district. Make sure to follow up on any request for information to build credibility and trust in the process and add a picture to your communications to build recognition. It will take longer to develop new relationships in this environment, but the investment into the process is as important, maybe even more so, than it has been in the past. 

Keep in mind that congressional staff are a conduit for sharing information with Members and other relevant offices, and that role has taken on more significance in a remote environment. Members will not join your phone call as they might have joined an in-person meeting. Check your grassroots networks to determine not only who has relationships with Members of Congress, but also with staffers and build on those relationships to help make connections within your organization. Not only might your organization benefit, but Hill staffers need relationships that help them do their jobs too and they may then move to other offices or committees you may need in the future.

For more advocacy advice and best practices, go to ambar.org/grassroots for tips, tutorials, and tools.