By Danny Diaz
With state legislatures having concluded special sessions and state legislatures across the country reconvening next year subsequent to the general elections, there are several critical steps organizations should take to ensure they are prepared for what is likely to be an intense and busy upcoming year.
None more true than the Commonwealth of Virginia, where its general assembly just concluded an unprecedented special session and gears up for the 2021 General Assembly. With virtually no sector being spared from the impact of COVID-19, nearly every individual and company in states across the country and the Commonwealth face a web of unique and diverse challenges.
Against that backdrop, a number of groups will be competing for the time and attention of lawmakers to ensure their priorities are addressed. That is why it is critically important to take advantage of the time before the start of the upcoming legislative session to build and deploy an effective public affairs campaign aimed at educating lawmakers, stakeholders and influencers, while building a network of allies to help advance one’s priorities and legislative goals.
Here are four best practices to help prepare for the legislative environment ahead:
Many groups take time throughout the spring, summer and fall to meet with members of the General Assembly to inform them about their priorities for the upcoming legislative year. However, this year, given the shutdowns, switch to virtual meetings and the demand on lawmakers’ time with the special session, it has become increasingly difficult to hold traditional briefings or meetings. There is a small window of opportunity to get ahead of the curve by proactively communicating one’s legislative priorities and concerns with lawmakers.
Given the environment we face, those efforts can take the shape of virtual meetings, smaller traditional meetings, conference calls or socially distant site visits. Alternatively, as many lawmakers are likely still experiencing intense demands on their time, these education efforts could also take on a number of non-traditional forms, including virtual site tours, recorded video briefings or conferences, targeted digital or television advertising, or developing a landing page or policy website, which could serve as a central hub and educational resource.
Additionally, since the 2019 election resulted in many newly elected, first-time members, reaching beyond lawmakers in one’s region is vital to developing a relationship and familiarizing newer lawmakers with one’s organization and priorities to build a broader network of support. As is well known, Virginia is back in cycle in 2021 making the demands on lawmakers even greater.
Public opinion surveys and focus groups are an important tool to pulse check public perception about the legislative issues most important to one’s organization. Survey data can be an important building block to help frame messaging and determine which messages will be the most effective among specific audiences. Surveys and focus groups can help provide proof points and data to validate and messaging, while at the same time showing lawmakers the level of support or opposition for certain legislative issues.
Rallying support starts with building an effective and persuasive narrative and continuously communicating that narrative to a wide range of target audiences through a series of mediums.
After determining the most compelling message for each target audience or legislator, we recommend building a suite of materials to help amplify and communicate that messaging. Certain materials will be impactful with different audiences. For example, power point briefings and talking points will be especially effective at helping to guide virtual meetings, while issue backgrounders, frequently asked questions documents, fact sheets, and one-pagers will be important tools to help educate grassroots and grasstops audiences and the media. Testimonials, especially from constituents, can also serve as an effective way to move the needle with lawmakers and their staff with emotional and persuasive arguments.
When it comes to getting ahead with reporters who will be covering one’s organization, leveraging existing relationships and developing new relationships where they might not currently exist is key. Not only is it important to reconnect with lawmakers, but organizations must prioritize taking time to speak with relevant reporters at local, state and national outlets to ensure that when an important issue is at the forefront, reporters have already been briefed on the issue.
Digital and online advertising is also an effective way to target messaging with great precision to a highly specific audience and amplify other traditional efforts. Digital campaigns can stand alone as a way to highlight key messages, articles and drive traffic to one’s website, or can help underscore any traditional public affairs effort by creating a surround-sound impact in tandem with other tactics, such as earned media engagement.
In addition, virtual events can provide an avenue to put an organization’s branding and messaging in front of key influencers and lawmakers. Virtual events are also a way to educate and engage new stakeholders to expand the reach of one’s effort.
Educating grassroots and grasstops allies and preparing them to engage on behalf of one’s organization is an important first step to mobilizing a coalition of supporters during the times that matter most. Having a coalition of supporters is an impactful way to help amplify key messages, while at the same time providing third-party validation in support of one’s legislative priorities. By cultivating a diverse set of voices, an organization can build a strong network of advocates to help advance their objectives and drive their messages.
Engaging grassroots and grasstops audiences is a particularly important tool when it comes to communicating with lawmakers. This ensures they hear from voices who matter the most – their constituents, employees of an organization, community and civic leaders and/or experts in a specific field.
Best practices to mobilize grassroots and grasstops include calling on them to email or write a letter to their lawmakers, post on social media, write a letter to the editor or op-ed, submit a comment during a regulatory comment period or attend a community event, committee hearing or speak at a town hall.
With a new session upon the Commonwealth, in an election year, and while we continue to work under restrictions due to the COVID pandemic, there was never a more important time for interests in Richmond to have a well thought out and executed public affairs strategy.