• May 13, 2021

How to Make Your GA Program Agile with Rapid Response

Crises happen to every organization and the ability to respond immediately is a vital capability for every government affairs team. Smart organizations are sharpening their capabilities. Here's how.

Every organization needs rapid response. Without the ability to act fast and mobilize on issues, you risk losing control. Legislation you oppose can gain traction. Narratives you don’t like can take flight. When you respond quickly, you can impact those narratives—and often the action itself. 

That’s exactly what happened to the Special Olympics when their federal funding was cut by the Trump administration in 2019. Launching a campaign just hours after the announcement, they used email, text messaging, social media and video to reach more than 22 million people. Within 24 hours, the campaign generated more than 43,000 emails, 900 tweets and almost 200 phone calls to lawmakers. Within 48 hours, the president himself reversed the decision. 

The truth is that crises happen to every organization and the ability to respond immediately is a vital capability for every government relations team. That may be even more true in the months ahead, as lawmakers and the administration look to take up issues before the midterm election cuts off the flow of legislation early next year. 

In Washington, President Biden is pushing his American Jobs Plan, which could open the door to $2 trillion or more in infrastructure spending. In state capitols, there are more than 360 voting rights bills that could change how Americans go to the polls. There are also proposals to address police reform, immigration, gun control and many other divisive issues.

Smart organizations are sharpening their ability to respond quickly right now, enhancing their digital capabilities, embracing tools like text messaging and preparing everything from lists to workflows in order to be ready.    

Rapid Response Means Growing Digital 

Veteran lobbyists will always be a primary asset when it comes to communicating quickly. Having the relationships to get a meeting or a call with exactly the right person can ensure that your organization’s point of view is conveyed properly. Sometimes, that can be the winning hand. But it is not the only way to play. 

A growing body of evidence shows that the ability to mobilize grassroots advocates and apply constituent pressure, alongside a well-connected lobbying presence, is a more balanced and effective approach. This may be even more pronounced after the pandemic curtailed the ability to communicate in person.

The digital advocacy boom in Biden’s first 100 days suggests that is the case. The number of campaigns doubled, the number of actions tripled and the number of advocates who mobilized quadrupled over the same period four years ago, according to Capitol Canary data. There’s also every chance the rise in digital will endure. A recent Public Affairs Council report showed that government affairs executives are thinking along those lines.

  • 86 percent say video conferences will increasingly replace in-person meetings with policymakers or staff
  • 60 percent say it will be difficult to meet face-to-face with federal policymakers even after the pandemic subsides
  • 54 percent say the pandemic will spur growth in digital advocacy and a decline in traditional lobbying  

Text Messaging is the Most Effective Tool 

When it comes to digital advocacy—and even rapid response—most programs are dependent on email. Yet that’s a channel where fast and powerful action is harder to generate every year. Using a purpose-build advocacy emailer can help. But inboxes are full and there are many organizations fighting for mindshare. If your email numbers are lackluster, then you understand.  

For those who want a dramatic jump in performance metrics and the best tool for rapid response, text messaging is the answer.

Text allows you to activate on command. It puts your call to action right in the pocket of your very best supporters, allowing you to control exactly when and how they mobilize. You send them a text and they click the link to take action. With the supremacy of mobile devices today—even during the COVID shutdown, 70 percent of supporters who responded to an advocacy campaign did so using mobile—text is the fastest, most modern tool available in government relations. The numbers tell the story:

  • Universal Opens. Text has a 99-percent open rate, meaning almost every message you send gets read. That is far more powerful than the average advocacy email, which has an open rate in the teens.
  • Higher Conversion. Conversion rates are also dramatically higher than email. During the advocacy boom caused by the pandemic last year, the average conversion for text was 11 percent. Many organizations have seen it grow far higher. Double-digit conversion is very, very common.
  • Faster Action. Text messages get seen immediately and so supporters act more quickly. Almost two thirds (65 percent) of the action generated by text takes place in the first hour after the message is sent, according to Capitol Canary data.
  • Dedicated Supporters. Text requires that you have phone numbers for your list and, by law, everyone on there must opt in to receive messages. Yet that is an advantage when it comes to rapid response. The group that opts in to receive texts from your organization very likely contains your most strident supporters—the people most likely to act immediately.  

Examples abound of organizations that use text effectively. One solid case is the Michigan Farm Bureau, a 100-year-old organization that represents the state’s agricultural interests. When the governor of Michigan signed an executive order declaring which industries were essential and could remain in operation, retail garden centers and greenhouses were left out. Using text, the Farm Bureau asked thousands of its members to email the governor and ask for a change. The campaign saw a massive 32-percent conversion rate and fully a third of the organization’s membership took action. In less than a month, the governor issued a new order declaring retail plant sales were essential infrastructure.  

Despite the enticing performance numbers, Capitol Canary’s 2019 Advocacy Survey showed that less than half of the respondents (47 percent) said their program relied on text messaging. The number that relied on email was 95 percent. While email is the workhorse of the industry and is not going away, many organizations have the opportunity to dramatically improve rapid response simply by adopting a new communication channel. With a little work, text messaging can improve your program immediately.

Keywords and Shortcodes Boost Reach

Text messaging can also help push your campaigns far beyond your list. In a world in which rapid response often means reaching the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time, that’s a huge asset. 

By combining text messaging with small, highly-memorable keywords and easy-to-recall shortcodes—for example, “Text ADVOCACY to 52886”—an organization can broadcast its message far and wide.  

Before the pandemic, many organizations used these tools at live events, issuing a call to action from the podium and encouraging supporters to respond on their phones. The result is a riot of action, all at the same time. It can even be tracked on a live map, making an impressive presentation.

Today, the same can be done at a virtual event. But a keyword and shortcode combination can also be used on social media, in advertising or anyplace else it is effective. The NAACP famously put a text campaign on a billboard in New York City’s Times Square. Using text with keywords and shortcodes is a great way to reach beyond your organization’s list and encourage everyday people to get active. 

This tactic is also extremely effective for list building. During the pandemic advocacy boom in 2020, acquisition among associations using this approach grew by an average of 533 percent, according to Capitol Canary data. The average number of new supporters per campaign grew from 40 to 260.

Readiness is the Key

Of course, not all of rapid response is about technology. Readiness is also a major factor.  Fortune favors those who do the hard work in advance and are prepared when situations arise. Here are some steps you can take to ensure your organization is ready. 

  • Establish Real Priorities. This may seem simple, but that is not always the case. Only the highest priority issues deserve true rapid response. If every issue is considered high priority, then none are. Organizing for rapid response means knowing exactly which issues—meaning a small handful—warrant a full mobilization. If you cannot answer that question right now, initiate some discussions up and down the org chart.
  • Streamline the Workflow. You cannot plan for everything and many rapid response situations come up suddenly. If you have to go through a long process of approval for external communications, with multiple courtesy sign offs, your response will be far too slow to have impact. Talk to your leadership about creating a process for emergency situations that includes only the most vital approvals. People with authority in your organization should be in this chain, but fewer overall is better.
  • Craft Urgent Messaging. All good rapid response communications must contain a sense of urgency. The National Restaurant Association did not mince words when it launched campaigns to protect its members as the pandemic nearly flatlined the food industry. The effort moved hundreds of thousands of people to send roughly half a million messages to Congress. Urgency can be difficult if your regular campaigns and fundraising appeals strike an intense tone, but it is important. If you know the issues you will activate on, craft your messaging in advance. If you can get it approved, you can respond that much faster.
  • Use Quick Video. Video does not need a script, a storyboard and a budget to be impactful. Often, a single, eloquent or passionate voice speaking directly to your audience—perhaps a CEO, executive director or expert—can carry the message effectively. This allows you to move fast in a medium that is extremely sharable. This is exactly the approach used by the Special Olympics, which created a video with the chairman speaking directly to supporters.
  • Emphasize Social Channels. Social media is ideal for rapid response. Yes, it is noisy. But organizations that produce compelling content such as video or info-graphics will reach their supporters. Any issue worthy of rapid response should always include communiques on social channels. It is also worth saying that these channels will perform better at crunch time if you feed them with compelling and helpful material all year.  
  • Activate ‘Super Advocates.’ Every organization has people who act on every single request, your most passionate supporters. These “super advocates” become vital in rapid response situations because you can count on them to mobilize. Consider segmenting your list and sending special messaging just to them. Expedia Group had success with this technique when they were opposing legislation in Arizona that would regulate their VRBO home rental business. Experts in email marketing, Expedia sent a message to all Arizona supporters and then another targeting only super advocates. The latter performed far better, with an open rate of 76 percent, a click rate of nearly 48 percent and a conversion rate of almost 32 percent. More than 100 super advocates were even willing to rally at the state capitol. 

Organizations that have priorities set, a streamlined process, ready messaging and the right tools will be ready to react when the time comes—and that will help a great deal in the year ahead.