How to Get 1300 Advocates to Capitol Hill [HINT: It’s more than just practice]

May 17, 2017 Christopher Masak

Use your voice.” To practitioners in the citizen engagement realm, the phrase is as well-worn and tired as, well, [insert your own well-worn and tired simile here]. The phrase oft appears in emails, social media posts and is ever-present in web copy. It’s printed on t-shirts, verbalized in training sessions and is nigh inescapable in PowerPoint presentations. And yet, despite it’s overuse, that simple three word request remains THE clarion call to those seeking to affect policy change, as well as the single best method of empowering supporters to be issue ambassadors.

Asking an individual to use their own voice and share personal experiences, as opposed to simply urging them to regurgitate a prewritten organizational blurb, makes the resulting message matter. It humanizes an issue and personalizes the act of message delivery. By doing so, passion, emotion, and authenticity are allowed to seep in, giving heft to the resulting message. In short, it legitimizes the message.

Encouraging constituents to share a story also empowers them, often providing a much-needed outlet for emotional release or inspiration. It can even unearth previously unrealized skills like public speaking and writing. And it establishes a three-way system of trust on the part of the storyteller who is opening themselves up for scrutiny, the organization leveraging the story for policy gain and the targeted message recipient (i.e. lawmaker), who chooses whether or not to change their preconceived notions based on what is being presented. As author Annette Simmons puts it, “Facts don’t have the power to change someone’s story. Your goal is to introduce a new story that will let your facts in.”

It’s no secret that authentic constituent voices make a difference. Lawmakers place significantly more value on personalized interactions and messages than form letters, pre-populated Tweets and other template-based appeals. According to the Congressional Management Foundation identical form messages “do not provide the multi-faceted and complete picture of constituent opinion and impact that legislators need to make their decisions.” Rather, personalized, localized and humanized messages are the preferred means of building quality lawmaker-constituent relationships.

Putting the advocate’s voice front and center is no easy task and is the source of much consternation amongst communications, marketing and advocacy professionals. Will they stay on message? Did they get the facts right? Will their relationship with a lawmaker supercede our organization’s? These are just a smattering of the questions being asked by practitioners whose jobs straddle that nebulous line between moving an issue forward and protecting a brand. But despite those concerns, empowering advocates yields some pretty fantastic results.

Recently the Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Impact Movement (AIM) hosted the largest and, dare I say it, BEST ever gathering of Alzheimer’s advocates in Washington D.C. at the 2017 Advocacy Forum. The multi-day event featured training sessions, live entertainment, awards celebrations, celebrity appearances and, of course, a lobby day. Nearly half of the 1300 attendees were first timers, yet many of the remaining attendees were back for their 5th, 10th and even 25th time. With steep travel costs and increasing demands on volunteer time, why did so many people choose to attend this event? And why do attendees continue to attend year after year?

Successful events like the Forum, as well as successful year-round advocacy programs, employ a number of tactics to engage and empower advocates and brand ambassadors:

4 Tactics to Engage Advocates and Brand Ambassadors

Let advocates take the stage –  Literally. From sharing accomplishments to fielding questions as part of a panel, advocate stories should dominate any agenda. The Alzheimer’s Association routinely hosts training sessions bookended by “Why I’m an Advocate” segments, where attendees share their personal motivation for joining our movement in concise 2-minute segments.

Provide the tools  – Sure, some templates, talking points and pre-formatted actions are always available. But advocates should also be provided a myriad of opportunities for sharing 100% constituent-driven content, including video testimonial widgets, Letter-to-the-Editor tools and even paper leave behind forms. And all advocates should be encouraged  to share their volunteer experience via their platform of choice, be it Boomerang, Periscope or a simple text message to their network back home.

Feature real people – Individuals respond better when they feel they’re part of a great movement. So, with apologies to stock photo vendors and copywriters everywhere, the use of actual advocate words or images in publications generates excitement. Seeing one’s self in a blog entry, printed materials, live Twitter walls, videos and photo galleries reaffirms the notion that every effort is being noticed and appreciated.

Organize and train – A team based approach to meeting with legislators, especially one that is coordinated well in advance of a meeting, leads to improved outcomes. More than simply delivering an “ask”, advocates need to be assigned individual roles and rehearse all aspects of their meeting, from the greeting to their personal stories and more. And familiarizing them with the materials they’ll use during the meeting and any leave-behind documents is key to getting those documents into the hands, and not the wastebasket, of legislative staff.

These tactics instill trust in advocates by providing a safe platform from which they can operate, a new or improved skill set, useful tools for disseminating their story and recognition of their efforts. Likewise, those very same individuals trust that their time isn’t being wasted, that their dollars are being put to good use, their personal content/information is being carefully maintained and that their experience is, and will continue to be, a rewarding one.

That trust is reciprocated by organizations that become increasingly willing to let the advocate story drive the policy conversation.

So how DOES one get 1300 citizen advocates to Capitol Hill? Let them use their voices.

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