How to Advocate With Impact in Congressional Districts
When the action slows on Capitol Hill and lawmakers head back to their districts, smart government affairs teams follow them home. Here are some things to take into account before you head outside Washington.
It’s a time-honored tradition in August: the action slows on Capitol Hill and lawmakers head back to their districts to connect with constituents and take time off. Smart government affairs teams sometimes follow them home.
Advocating in congressional districts can be a high-impact strategy for organizations that want to gain traction on their issues, punch home a message or simply solidify relationships. Which of those goals you pursue will largely dictate your strategy.
Activity in a congressional district should be thoughtful and well calibrated. You are communicating with a member of Congress and their constituents on their home turf, and it can be perceived as aggressive. Done correctly, however, it can be a very effective way to carry your message.
Here are some things to take into account for organizations that plan to head outside Washington this month.
This is Not Your Average August
This year’s August recess is likely to be different from previous years in several important ways, and government affairs teams will have to navigate carefully.
The most obvious change is that the pandemic is still having a major impact on how we interact. The surge in COVID-19 cases is causing rapid changes in policy that can impact face-to-face meetings, raising questions about whether and how in-person gatherings like rallies and town halls will take place. Add to that the political divide over the pandemic and it could be an important factor in planning August advocacy.
Lawmakers may also be recalled to work in Washington this month. While the Senate continues debate on a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, other items dealing with the federal budget and a pandemic-related moratorium on evictions may need to be addressed. Several members of congressional leadership have talked about returning to Washington to get things done. It’s not a certainty. Lawmakers may be able to get work done virtually, thanks to measures put in place during the pandemic that allow proxy voting. But it is worth tracking.
Cutting into lawmaker’s time back home would be an unpopular move, and not something leadership does without heavy consideration. As Politico put it, “August in Washington isn’t any senator’s idea of a good time.”
District Work Should Be Strategic
Government affairs teams also need to take state politics into account when they make their August plans. The political landscape is fraught in many states. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is under intense pressure to resign after a report by the state Attorney General accused him of sexual harassment. In California, Governor Gavin Newsomn is facing a recall in a special election Sept. 14. Situations like these are likely to dominate politics in these states and make the political environment less stable. The state of play should be considered before you take action in any state this summer.
Advocacy in congressional districts is about getting a lawmaker’s attention in ways that are difficult to do in Washington, but it requires care. For example, one traditional way to get a lawmaker to take notice is to run ads in their district. A group wants to pressure the lawmaker on their issue, so they run TV and radio spots back home to provoke a response. It can be effective. But it is also aggressive. Ads may bring a lawmaker to the table, but they may not appreciate being dragged.
The point is obvious: make sure you understand how your work will be perceived. If your goal is an aggressive campaign, that’s fine. If your goal is to build a relationship and foster cooperation, make sure your actions are in line with that outcome and won’t be misperceived. Communication in a congressional district should be strategic.
When it comes to working in districts, there is much that can be done beyond advertising. Staging a COVID-safe rally around your issue, for example, can be extremely powerful. It’s a great way to express a position and show that position has constituent support. A rally of respectable size—it need not be huge—is unlikely to escape a lawmaker’s attention, especially if it draws media coverage.
How these look on the ground will vary a great deal by organization, issue and district. But there are some tactics that can help in almost every situation. One is to recruit other organizations in the district to join your cause. Your message gets more powerful as the number of constituents involved increases. Working with allied groups on an issue can boost attendance at your rally, increase engagement on grassroots and social campaigns and enlarge your presence generally. When groups representing thousands of constituents in a congressional district pull together around an issue, it becomes harder to ignore.
Support from public officials outside Congress can also help. Approaching state lawmakers, mayors and city council members, gaining their support and asking them to attend your rally can give the event more credibility. If the event is targeting a member of Congress, some organizations might choose to invite that member. In other cases, that may not be appropriate. Whatever the case, inviting VIPs is worthy of consideration.
Any organization that holds a rally should devote resources to promotion on social channels. The reason is simple: social media can reach beyond your list. Paid social promotion can be geographically targeted. Organic can use local hashtags to generate interest. If the idea is to reach constituents and draw them to the cause, social media is often the most effective and affordable channel to do so.
One more important recommendation: hold a live call to action at your event. If people are taking the time to attend an event, they will take the time to email your lawmaker. Using text messaging, you can ask people to take action on the spot and report the engagement numbers right from the podium. It’s an interactive way to energize the audience.
Borrow These Ideas
Of course, there are many things that organizations can do to get active in congressional districts this month. Here are some ideas:
- Use Your Assets. Organizations that already have a presence in the district have an advantage. Perhaps it is a company that has a manufacturing plant or a nonprofit with a state chapter. Whatever the case, it means you have a group of constituents already affiliated with your organization located in exactly the right place. This can be helpful in many ways, but here’s one simple suggestion: invite your lawmaker to speak at your facility. These meetings are often scheduled far in advance, but if the audience and the issues are right, you may get some traction. Even if your lawmaker declines, they will note that you asked
- Attend Their Events. Lawmakers are often busy in August, holding town halls and speaking to groups around the district. One way to gain face time is to attend these events. You can be low-key, sending a single representative to approach the lawmaker for a chat after a speech. Or you can come in larger numbers. The situation and your goals will dictate the strategy.
- Echo Their Messaging. Lawmakers often get sent home to their districts in August with canned messaging from congressional leadership. In some cases, this messaging gets very specific, including sample press releases and social media posts. In situations where your interests align, your organization can echo this messaging, whether on social media or other channels. Ongoing support like this can help down the line, when you are asking lawmakers to support you.
- Grow Your Local Audience. Working in a congressional district allows you to grow your audience in that area. For example, a petition campaign targeting the district can show constituent sentiment and grow your list. The same is true of social campaigns targeting a specific locale. Growing your audience in a district that is strategically important creates an asset that will help your organization far beyond a single issue or a single campaign.
- Commission a Poll. A poll showing public support for your bill, your position or your issue within a lawmaker’s district is not likely to be ignored. Public support is no guarantee that a lawmaker will back your position, but it will almost certainly gain their attention and could help get a conversation started. It can draw the attention of local media, too.