3 Big Ideas to Guide Government Affairs in Uncertain Times
Companies, associations and nonprofits that remain active in times of crisis, as so many did when COVID struck in 2020, are often rewarded. Higher engagement rates and substantial list growth are common. Here's what your team can do.
Today’s political landscape is filled with uncertainty. Will America recover from the COVID pandemic this year? Will Republicans retake one or both chambers of Congress next year? Will former president Trump run again in 2024? Can the Biden administration advance its agenda?
Every one of these questions has massive policy implications across multiple industries, and steering a government affairs program through that many variables can be difficult. Years ago, the common wisdom encouraged organizations to take a wait-and-see approach. That is not the best prescription today. Americans are demanding that organizations declare their values, and they often penalize those that don’t. More importantly, companies, associations and nonprofits that remain active in times of crisis―as so many did when COVID struck in 2020―are often rewarded with higher engagement rates, substantial list growth and the respect that comes with leadership.
To get perspective on what teams can do right now to navigate effectively, we asked experts at Capitol Canary who interact with and advise dozens of companies, associations and nonprofits every week. Their recommendations were concrete:
- Stay active and engaged with your audience, even if the landscape is uncertain
- Use an early warning system to stay hyper-aware on your issues, and
- Sharpen your rapid response capabilities.
Acting on these strategies now can help ensure that your team is prepared, whatever lies ahead―and there is a lot. Congress is still debating a trillion-dollar infrastructure deal. The administration issued an executive order to promote economic competition that has huge implications for healthcare, technology, transportation and other industries. Legislative sessions are ongoing in more than a dozen states.
“Our clients do incredibly important work. We’re advising them to keep it up and not be meek,” said Jeb Ory, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Capitol Canary. “Strong and thoughtful advocacy based on solid political intelligence is going to be the winning formula in the months ahead, especially as we navigate a mish-mash of return to work policies and new COVID variants. Organizations need to maintain a powerful voice and muscular engagement with their supporters, who are looking to the organizations they are affiliated with to show leadership right now. The riskiest move in this environment may be to do nothing.”
Don’t Stop Strategic Campaigning
One major lesson from 2020, when organizations faced historic threats and massive uncertainty brought by the pandemic, is that those remaining active often fared the best, at least from a government relations perspective. Collectively, they drove millions of people to contact public officials, often recruiting new advocates and growing their lists in the process.
People often respond to relevant, well-timed advocacy requests in times of crisis and uncertainty. For example, roughly 3.4 million people participated in advocacy for the first time on the Capitol Canary platform in the first half of 2020, with about two thirds—almost 2 million people—doing so in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic (March 13 to May 30), according to the State of Advocacy 2020 report.
The organizations that led the action saw the most growth. For example, the American College of Emergency Physicians saw its list grow by almost 33,000 and the American Nurses Association gained 105,000, each in a single campaign launched just days after the White House announced an emergency declaration March 13 of 2020.
Other organizations practiced continuous engagement throughout the first half of the year and saw their audiences respond. Airbnb, for example, launched 54 campaigns from January to June of 2020, using a targeted, local strategy to mobilize supporters nationwide. The home sharing company activated more than 42,000 people and ensured that its hosts were eligible for federal aid when Congress passed legislation
An active stance may be the best approach this year as well. While the political landscape is uncertain, your organization’s agenda is not. The organizations that remain active are likely to have the most impact and see the most results.
Develop an Early Warning System
It is hard to overstate the value of political intelligence. In uncertain times, information is the hedge against getting blindsided, and you need it at all levels. Thankfully, technology can help.
In Washington, you need to know what lawmakers and regulators are saying about your issues, whether or not they are taking action. A system that monitors social channels and news outlets, both national media in Washington and local media in congressional districts, can greatly improve situational awareness. If there’s a change that requires you to seek a meeting or issue a response, you want to know immediately.
In the states, the same need exists to monitor governors and legislators, but it is compounded by the volume of legislation bills and the pace of the action. State legislatures introduce tens of thousands of bills. Thousands of them pass, and they can do so in a matter of weeks (sometimes, days). Monitoring the action requires a professional legislative tracking system capable of alerting your team when bills are regulations are introduced and start to move.
Many industries also need to watch the government at the local level, and not just gig- and sharing-economy companies. Industries such as airlines, construction, energy, healthcare and many more are partially regulated at the local level. If you are not watching city and county governments, you may have a blind spot.
While it may be tempting to say that state action will cool throughout the rest of the year, consider this: 12 states were still in regular session and four were in special session as of July 29, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s true that the beginning-of-year crush is done. But states are not finished with their business. Consider too that local governments generally don’t have a season or a session. They conduct business year-round.
Monitoring all of this gets dramatically easier with technology in place. A system that can track state and local bills, monitor social and news channels and alert your team when changes take place can be a force multiplier. It can mean the difference between getting ahead of problems and being caught unaware.
Sharpen Your Rapid Response
When situations change and challenges arise, your organization’s influence depends directly on your ability to respond and to do so quickly. If rapid response throws your organization into a fire drill—and that’s a very common problem—it’s hard to be at your best. This is another place where technology can help, but first a short discussion about preparation is in order.
Rapid response is greatly enhanced when your organization is prepared. This means a ready set of messaging and an agreed-upon procedure. No organization can have messaging ready for all occasions. But if you have a pre-approved procedure, meaning you know exactly which people will write, edit, approve and send a response (and equally important, who will not), it makes it far easier to move quickly. Having a process established in advance can mean the difference between responding in hours or a full day later, when the moment may have passed.
Technology can also have a major role to play, especially when your response involves grassroots action. Generating a quick response can be greatly inhibited if you simply shoot that response out via email. Yes, email is the communication engine of choice at most organizations. And yes, there are things you can do to improve email performance.
But the best tool for rapid response is text messaging. The average open rate for text messaging is 99 percent, far above the average advocacy email, which is in the teens. More importantly, more than half the action generated by a text campaign takes place in the first seven minutes after the message is sent, making it ideal for rapid response and increasing the sense of urgency that drives grassroots action. Conversion rates are also much higher. While the average conversion rate for advocacy email is in the low single digits, conversion rates for text messaging are often two or three times higher. Double-digit conversion rates are routine.
Equipping a well-prepared team with a text messaging program can create extremely effective rapid response capabilities—and rapid response really can work. The best argument for that is the Special Olympics, which was able to mobilize fast in the face of a federal budget cut, convincing the White House to reverse course in just 48 hours. Take a look.
Finding Certainty in an Uncertain Landscape
While there is a great deal of uncertainty in the political landscape, there are some things that government affairs professionals can count on. For example, there is likely to be plenty of legislative and regulatory action between now and the end of the year. And there will probably be a lot less next year.
Most national elections slow down major legislation. Neither party wants to risk having their members defect, forcing incumbents to cast a tough vote or injecting wildcards into election messaging. Next year’s divisive contest for control of Congress will dominate the national conversation and likely increase that effect. The result is that a window for major action will be open between now and the end of the year, and it will likely close as we ring in 2022.
Of course, the Biden administration and it allies in Congress know this and are pushing hard to enact their agenda. The executive order Biden signed in July, for example, contains 72 separate initiatives. It calls for policy changes on a wide range of issues, including net neutrality, antitrust enforcement, generic medications, hospital mergers, medical billing, airline fees, food labeling, data privacy, internet company mergers and a great deal more.
Reading through the order and watching Congress chew on the infrastructure bill, one thing seems pretty certain: if there is a summer slowdown, it won’t last long. There will be plenty of legislative and regulatory action in the next five months.