• December 3, 2021

Government Affairs Lessons From 2021

There was a lot of action in 2021—and a lot of lessons to be learned. Reflecting on the changes and identifying what worked is a healthy exercise for teams that plan to adapt and modernize quickly.

This year began with some very unique challenges: a change in administration, a new Congress, an effort to overthrow a presidential election and an attack on the U.S. capitol building that resulted in criminal charges for more than 700 people.

As USA Today reported, “six days into 2021, it was clear things weren’t going to work like they used to.”

That was as true for government affairs professionals as anyone. The pandemic changed the way teams operate, forcing them to adjust instantly. At the same time, Congress approved legislation directing trillions of dollars to pandemic relief and infrastructure; state legislatures considered thousands of bills, including hundreds that could change procedures for U.S. elections; and the American workplace began a transformation that is far from finished.

There was a lot of action in 2021—and there are a lot of lessons to be learned.

While your team could be forgiven for taking a breath this holiday season, reflecting on the changes and identifying what worked is a healthy exercise. What you will find is that advocacy activity remained strong, change is now a constant and the teams that succeeded are those able to adapt and modernize quickly. At Capitol Canary, we work with more than 1,200 organizations and we talk to government affairs professionals daily. Here are some of the major lessons we see from 2021.

Advocacy Continues at Pace

Last year set records for advocacy in America and the pace remained strong in 2021. For example, in the first 100 days of the Biden administration alone, more than 4.1 million advocates took action on advocacy campaigns, according to data from the Capitol Canary platform. That is almost four times more than the 1.1 million that got active during that same period in 2016. The total was also higher than the 3.9 million who mobilized in the months before the 2020 presidential election.

The takeaway is that there is very little fatigue among advocates on the issues they care about. Healthcare workers are not going to stop advocating on public health and pandemic safety. Construction professionals are not going to stop advocating on infrastructure. Successful organizations like the American Heart Association and Airbnb ran more than 100 campaigns in Biden’s first 100 days. People respond to relevant, well-timed advocacy requests—even in times of crisis and uncertainty—when those requests impact their interests.

To learn more, read Getting Started in Advocacy

Companies are Conducting More Advocacy

Even a decade ago, the standard corporate playbook called for sitting out controversial social issues for fear of alienating a segment of their customers. That is changing quickly. Research shows that as customers increasingly demand that companies declare where they stand, positioning on major social issues is becoming a market expectation.

Companies are responding by wading into advocacy directly, taking on issues like social justice, diversity, gun control and many more—issues that were once considered extremely risky. This boldness has brought rewards. In 2018, companies attracted about 583,000 new advocates, according to Capitol Canary data. In the first three quarters of this year, that number was almost 2.1 million. That’s a three-fold gain, and it doesn’t even count Q4.

The takeaway is simple: there is more risk in silence than there is in vocal advocacy around carefully considered positioning on issues that are important to your audience.

To learn more, read Corporate Activism is Mainstream

Teams Can Adjust to Almost Anything

If nothing else, 2021 showed us that government affairs teams are resilient. With in-person lobbying curtailed, fly-ins cancelled and major new issues to tackle, many organizations got creative and adapted, finding new ways to carry their messaging to public officials.

Some hosted virtual fly-ins, connecting hundreds of advocates with dozens of lawmakers. Others held virtual events for their own supporters, allowing them to gather and then participate in activities that further the cause, from fundraising to advocacy.

“We have seen organizations adopt some incredibly creative strategies,” said Jeb Ory, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Capitol Canary. “In the beginning, it was tough, because many of these tactics were being tried for the first time. But again and again, we saw organizations successfully connect with their audience and move their advocacy program forward. It gets easier as these tactics become the new normal.”

To learn more, read Hosting a Virtual Fly-in

Text Messaging is the New Email

Email is the workhorse of our industry, and teams could do worse than to adopt an advocacy-driven approach to their email program. But the teams that saw some of the most success in 2021—and the biggest boost in their metrics—adopted text messaging as a primary channel.

While the average advocacy email has an open rate in the teens and conversion in low single digits, text messaging gives your best advocates a sense of urgency and elevates the numbers to an entirely different level. Text has a 99-percent open rate, meaning your calls to action are seen by almost every recipient. More importantly, conversion rates can be twice that of email, and often much higher. Double-digit conversion is common.

The takeaway is that teams who are serious about increasing their performance and their numbers launch a text program. It’s a modern, essential tool.

To learn more, read The Transformative Power of Text Messaging

Zoom Fatigue is Real (Lawmakers Feel it Too)

The availability of lawmakers and other public officials has traveled an arch over the course of the year. A poll by the Public Affairs Council in April showed that almost two thirds of government affairs professionals said reaching lawmakers via phone or video conference was easier than expected during the pandemic. Later in the year, that started to change.

Many of the organizations we work with say that it is harder to get facetime—virtual or in person—with lawmakers in Washington than it has been in the past. There are many reasons for this. Enhanced security on Capitol Hill, pandemic-related health concerns, the standard trepidation about meeting with lobbyists and a wave of Zoom fatigue present very real barriers.

The organizations that break through are those that get creative with their outreach, whether that means communicating through constituents more effectively, working in districts or employing earned media. The takeaway is that, when the standard channels fail to produce results, successful organizations adopt new tactics and continue to respectfully push for conversations on their issues.

To learn more, read 6 Ideas to Help You Get Meetings

DEI and Advocacy Go Together

Two out of three companies, associations and other organizations now have a formal, organization-wide plan to address diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the 2021 DEI Trends in Public Affairs Report. Smart government affairs teams are starting to realize the nexus between those DEI efforts and their advocacy program.

Many organizations are making strategic changes to how they conduct advocacy, engage the campaign finance system, hire new personnel and structure teams, advancing a culture that leads with DEI and makes a positive impact in the communities where they operate.

The takeaway is that DEI is not something effective government affairs teams should ignore. It represents an opportunity to play a leadership role and foster a DEI culture in your organization and your industry.

To learn more, read How Government Relations Advances DEI Goals