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Getting your association advocacy message right

By Huw Williams

Making sure your association’s advocacy messaging is on target for success is a critical part of overall advocacy strategy. Too often associations make the mistake of “ready…fire…aim” for lobbying. Indeed, leaders who fail to properly consider what their basic advocacy message is and how it relates to target audiences will not succeed in the short or long run. This article will tackle the sometimes tricky and often thorny issues of landing on the right advocacy message for your association to achieve winning results for members.

WHEN TO CONSIDER MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT

Before delving into message development, it may help to explore the timeframes where setting or resetting advocacy messaging is an absolute requirement. While it is common sense that at the start of every advocacy campaign you have to set the message, there are other times where it may not be so obvious. Key timeframes to reset association advocacy messaging include:

  • The formation of a new government – This is always an important time to review and possibly recalibrate messaging. Each new government represents a different audience with a new mandate. This is a critical time to reset strategy and identify the best tactics for advocacy activities.
  • When an election campaign is on the horizon – Associations used to take a step back during elections, but now the best practice is to engage with political party platform committees and key political champions early in the campaign while platforms are being drafted. Engaging with politicians early on helps set the agenda before political parties form government. This can save enormous time and money by setting a future government’s agenda and making sure it includes the association’s lobbying asks before it starts its term of office.
  • Major changes in government policy – Sometimes governments are forced by events to change course on major areas of policy. An example of drastically changing direction would include an economic recession, forcing a government committed to austerity to spend, or major trade negotiations forcing internal policy shifts. When these unexpected changes occur, advocacy opportunities can arise and messaging must reflect this by tying into the new context and political climate.
  • Continuous message improvement – The evolving reality is that advocacy messaging requires frequent and regular calibration based on intelligence gathering such as ongoing feedback from association meetings with government. Best practices are to have regular and consistent direct contact with decision makers and a formal feedback process for tracking meetings. Associations can also gain valuable insight from professionals that deal with the government on a consistent and day-to-day basis. Sometimes, this information can come from an association’s internal government relations professionals. This type of support can also come from political consultants that play a near constant role of making sure associations understand a government’s view on issues or can be most helpful providing specific intelligence on key issues. Some of the tactics used by consultants can include off the record or background conversations with government leaders that can set the context for future decision-making. Intelligence can also come from other sources such as key elected champions that have already bought into an association message or purpose. Many times, elected officials are more than happy to provide advice or insight on messaging to advance a cause they support.

BALANCING THE ADVOCACY MESSAGE FOR MEMBERS

One of the key fundamentals of advocacy messaging is ensuring the message is well-balanced for all audiences. It is critical to find the balance between language that association members want and expect and the different audiences in government that will receive and respond to the messaging. Erring too far towards hard-hitting language that members may endorse but that will offend government will not be helpful or lead to success. Erring in the other direction to placating government with more “politically soft” messages can be equally problematic as it can erode or undercut crucial member support.

As a general rule, associations can speak to their own members in more “member-centric terms” while shaping external messages to fit with their audience. However, great care must be taken to make sure that there is consistency in approach and integrity. In today’s internet and social media age, it is easy for associations to be exposed for saying one thing to members and another to government. There are countless examples of leaked memos, bulletins and social media posts that have torpedoed advocacy campaigns. The best practice is to make sure that any messaging an association leader sends to members should pass the leak test: Would you be ok if a government official read it? Conversely, the communications messaging to government should always be acceptable to members.

CALIBRATING YOUR MESSAGE

There are many guideposts to ensuring that an association’s message is on track for a successful advocacy campaign.

  • Political party platforms provide some of the most important insight into the thinking and language that political parties endorse. An in-depth and reflective review of party platforms can help shape an association’s advocacy message for success. It can also provide messaging “hooks” to support a lobbying effort. As an example, if a government is focused heavily on supporting the middle class, your messaging can reflect how your advocacy goal can accomplish supporting the middle class.
  • At the beginning of each Parliament, all federal and provincial governments deliver a speech from the throne. These are concise, well-thought-out documents that highlight the core objective of the government. Tying your association’s message into the government’s agenda is a fundamental for success.
  • Debates in the House of Commons and debates in parliamentary committees are part of the public record via Hansard and other means. Reviewing the public statements of politicians or questioning witnesses can provide excellent insight into how advocacy messages will land with decision makers.
  • A new trend in Canadian government is making ministerial mandate letters public. These letters, which are basically instructions to ministers from either the prime minister or provincial premiers, are helpful to associations in that they provide explicit guidance on key department issues and directions. Not only do ministers and their staff review these documents frequently but so do senior officials. Associations aiming at a particular government department should also review the mandate letters frequently to adjust messaging.

POLITICAL VERSUS OFFICIALS

Governments as a whole almost always present a continually changing and multifaceted set of audiences and decision makers. Both major and minor government decisions hit both the political and bureaucratic levels. Consideration has to be given to shaping messaging to appeal to both these different but important audiences. Again, consistency and integrity of messaging is important but messages do not have to be identical at both levels since politicians and public servants play very different roles.

GOVERNING VERSUS OPPOSITION PARTIES

Associations often express concern about how to handle messaging to the government and opposition, and whether to approach both or only the governing party. The best practice for associations is to ensure your messaging is multi-partisan. Leaders can then tailor the messaging to the government versus the opposition. Associations cannot be successful in the long term if they are not multi-partisan.

OWNING THE CONSUMER AND PUBLIC ARGUMENT

The most important factor in Canadian advocacy success is ensuring that your association’s core message and core asks of government reflect what is good for the public and the consumer. Fundamentally, political leaders and government audiences are striving to represent the public and ensure public policy meets the needs of the public. Too often associations brand their messaging so it only reflects what is good for their members, profession or sector. While this can be useful in pumping up your base and membership it does not move the needle with government. Great care should be taken to ensure you consider how your advocacy ask reflects the public good and how you can best ensure that your advocacy messaging leads with the public argument.

Polling is one of the best means of supporting your case for the public good. Credibly polling provides direct evidence that voters support your messaging. Polling used to be almost prohibitively expensive but creative use of omnibus polling and social media have made costs more feasible for budget-conscious associations. The investment in polling or focus groups can make a big difference in delivering results for members.

WHERE DOES THE MEDIA MESSAGE FIT IN?

Not all advocacy requires a parallel media campaign that supports your lobbying efforts, but media messaging should always be a consideration. Association leaders need to make a strategic decision as to whether media coverage will support or detract from a lobby campaign’s chances of success. Either way, leaders need to be prepared should media coverage start to impact your issue. The worst time to consider media messaging is in the heat of a media firestorm. Well-thought-out media lines, prepared in advance and well-practiced, are always a great accompanying tool to any lobby messages.

SIMPLICITY IN MESSAGING IS CRITICAL

Politicians are among the busiest professionals in terms of demands on their time and the number of issues they deal with in a given day or month. This means that associations have to ensure their messaging can be understood in digestible parts. Lobbyists cannot expect to drop a detailed and heavy briefing binder on a politician’s desk and expect them to be read. Layering the messaging is key – and having the right tools is critical:

  • The Elevator Pitch – This is the 30 second basic message that your association’s leadership and team should be able to deliver to politicians when they meet formally or informally. It should be simple enough that it can be delivered without notes and impactful enough that it has a call to action.
  • The Pitch Card – This is a pocket-sized document that literally hits the main points of your lobby message and keeps members track. It should also make a great handout to politicians and their staff.
  • The Ask – Politicians always want to know what your association “ask” is. What specifically they can do to make you happy. Should they vote on an issue, write the minister, raise the issue in caucus or ask for a committee hearing? Politicians want to know how to support your association and the “ask” should be a key part of your messaging.
  • One pager – Almost every association lobbying case can be broken down to a simple understandable one-page briefing note for politicians and officials. This format generally ensures that your case gets read and that key facts are digested. The one pager can reference longer supporting documents or web-based material that makes your complete case but it should stand alone to make clear your advocacy case.
  • Supporting infographic – A picture is still worth a 1000 words and associations should strive to tell their story in a brief, impactful and visual way. Infographics help tell your story and drive home key facts.

The most important factor in Canadian advocacy success is ensuring that your association’s core message and core asks of government reflect what is good for the public and the consumer.

GRASSROOTS MESSAGING

One of the most underutilized elements of messaging that associations overlook is the inclusion of basic grassroots arguments. Politicians want to know the local statistics, elements and narratives that support the national or provincial case. Association leaders need to work with members to draw out their local narratives and facts so politicians can understand how it impacts their riding or region.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING FIRST

As a general rule in lobbying, it is always important to define an issue before opposing forces define it for your association. It is also important to seize the advantage by landing on your message early and getting to decision-makers first. Associations should then plan to build on the messaging on an ongoing basis. Polling information, focus group results, and supportive media can all help build the lobbying case on a continuous basis.

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