• May 1, 2022
  • Jeanette Russell

Four Big Takeaways From the Advocacy Conference

The Public Affairs Council’s annual Advocacy Conference in Austin, Texas, offered four days of high-value education. Here are some takeaways to help keep the momentum going.

Hundreds of government affairs professionals gathered in Austin this week for the Public Affairs Council’s annual Advocacy Conference, which offered four days of education from some of the most effective practitioners in the industry.

Executives from the American Chemistry Council, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the American Physical Therapy Association, AT&T, The Home Depot, the International Paper Company, Toyota Motor North America and many other organizations were on hand. Topics ranged from how to effectively train advocates to how to tell a better story with data.

The Advocacy Conference: 4 Key Takeaways

For those of you who could not make it this year (and even for those who did), here are four key takeaways identified by the Capitol Canary team, who were proud to sponsor the event.

1. Expect More Polarization Ahead

While it is no secret that polarization is a major issue, several speakers at the conference delved into why that is and, perhaps more important, what it means for government affairs teams.

Stephen Hawkins, Global Director of Research at More in Common, argues that it is systemic. The political space drives partisan politics; a partisan and self-sorting electorate responds with outrage; and the media benefits from stories about conflict, amplifying the divide. The result is a system that rewards polarization—and that is not likely to change.

Bruce Mehlman, founder of the consulting firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, points to a PRRI American Values Survey from 2020 as an example. In that survey, 81% of Republicans agreed that “the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists” and 78% of Democrats agree that “the Republican Party has been taken over by racists.” Mehlman calls it an “age of disruption” that goes beyond just politics. Aided by technology, geopolitical trends and cultural differences, he says America’s divide is likely to continue.

What this means for government affairs, experts say, is that polarization will continue to make the job difficult, with teams treading gingerly around divides in their own organizations, their own audiences and the public officials they seek to influence. Our own data backs this up. In Capitol Canary’s State of Government Affairs Survey, which asked almost 500 government affairs professionals about their experiences, almost two-thirds (65%) said polarization makes advocacy harder.

While teams cannot avoid the political environment, one thing experts suggest is to make the workplace a safe haven, where fact-based discourse and a respectful tone can be counted upon.

2. Focus on Advocate Education

Much of the conference was dedicated to practical strategies, including how to educate, motivate and activate supporters. Laura Keivel, grassroots and political affairs specialist at the American Physical Therapy Association, argues that these efforts are all closely related. “An informed advocate is an engaged advocate,” she said.

The experts stress that training advocates in advance—before you need them—is important and that using multiple tools and channels is the way to effectively reach people. Meaghan Joyce, director of political and advocacy strategy and the International Paper Company, said the company has a hub on the website where employees can find out information about issues. But they also do a podcast.

Keivel views advocates as a pyramid with paid staff at the top, followed by grasstops ambassadors and then grassroots advocates. Those who are volunteering often want to do more but do not have the time, she said. The answer is a system of adult education that explains to advocates where they fit in the overall system. Training can be especially effective with grasstops advocates. She recommends giving grasstops advocates a task that requires them to report back, increasing “skin in the game.” A scoring system based on actions taken can then identify which are top advocates and which are good candidates for mentoring.

3. Energize Storytelling With Data

Audra Kruse, director of public affairs and digital engagement at America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) says that telling your organization’s story properly requires data.

The narrative elements—the “color,” as she calls it—are important, but credibility is also a central ingredient. And that comes from data. Kruse says data points should be useful, memorable, visual and easy to understand. One major suggestion: don’t use the data you have if it’s not the data you need. You’ll know you have the right points, she says, when they are too good not to share.

Of course, how that data gets communicated is also important. Rebecca L. Steele, director of emerging technologies policy at Toyota Motor North America, says organizations can benefit from a more sophisticated approach. Stories should be both easy to understand and memorable.

For example, if a car manufacturer is opposing a 25% auto tariff, the team could calculate the overall job losses and lead with that. But that is a story that has been told before. It may be important, but it is also boring. A better approach, Steele says, is to focus on how the policy impacts constituents. For example, the team might note that the cost of a car would go up by $1,800. They might also communicate job losses in very personal terms. For example, “Brad wakes up at 2 a.m. worry that he’s going to have to lay off 225 people if the tariff is passed.” Gathering multiple voices is also effective. In this scenario, not only would the manufacturer tell their story, but groups like auto dealers and suppliers would add to it. As Steele put it, many voices can be powerful when they sing in a chorus.

They also have to be singing the same song. Advocates from all quarters should be telling the same story consistently, using the same data points to support it, in order to drive policy points home. Metrics and KPIs are also an essential tool. Tracking trends among email, calls and tweets, and the top campaigns according to who took action, can help direct your attention more effectively. It can also tell you which of your targets have heard your message, who needs more pressure and which campaigns are you advocates most excited about—all extremely valuable data points.

4. Make Corporate Advocacy Accessible

For companies, effective advocacy strategies begin long before there is a problem. They are rooted in ongoing employee education that takes place across multiple channels, making policy easier to understand.

Joyce at International Paper says her company cultivates grasstop leaders who can communicate directly with public officials. But broader efforts are aimed at educating the entire workforce around issues that are important to the company.

For example, new employees are educated about government affairs as part of the onboarding process. The company also encourages public officials to make facility visits. Once a quarter, they hold a town hall that draws 200 employees in person and more via video conference. The government affairs team partners with executives on the business side to explain various issues and the impact they have on the company. By combining voices from government affairs and business, the message often resonates.

If your team can answer the question “why should I care?” for employees, Joyce says, they will take action when asked because they understand what is at stake.

The Home Depot also does a great deal to educate and involve employees, said Evelyn Fornes, manager of communications and advocacy. For example, the company has invited public officials to do “store walks” for almost two decades now, allowing store managers to provide tours and explain issues. The strategy connects public officials directly with constituents who can speak to the local impact of policy decisions. Each manager is given a briefing book that includes biographical information and the guests and the issues to discuss. The company does about 50 a year now, and is expanding to include suppliers.

The team does a lot throughout the year to keep store managers and other employees invested in policy. For example, at the annual store manager meeting, a trade show highlighting new products for the year, the government relations team takes a booth and often focuses on education around a specific issue. The team even goes so far as to issue action alerts based on where attendees live. Last year, thousands of actions were taken in a single day.