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Digital advocacy: The tectonic shift in public affairs

By Huw Williams

 I have worked with Canadian associations for the past three decades, either in an executive role or as an advisor on public affairs issues. Over that period, there have been many political developments and technological advances, but I have not seen any shift as dramatic as the transition toward digital engagement in associations’ government relations strategies.

Since the advent of social media, political parties and candidates have driven reforms in fundraising, supporter recruitment, policy development and GOTV (get out the vote) strategies. These reforms have upended electoral strategies and changed approaches to governing for the parties in power, but they all have one thing in common — they are the result of a focus on online and mobile communications that meets citizens where they are and cuts through the clutter of their busy lives.

Successful advocacy groups have, over the past half-decade, begun to mirror the tactics employed by political parties. They have also taken advantage of the preoccupation of political staffers and politicians with what is happening online, and capitalized on a data-driven approach to decision-making. Whether it is a party considering a specific platform plank, a minister putting forward a funding request to the centre of government, or a senior public servant recommending a regulatory update, the online chatter and quantifiable input of citizens and stakeholder groups is shaping the dialogue of government. More often than not, it is also shaping what decisions are made, by whom, and when.

Digital campaigns are a natural progression of grassroots politics. In a hurried world, where the competition for the mindshare of supporters is fierce, the targeting of social media advertising and direct email appeals can push past the noise. Digital campaigns are cheaper, quicker and more accessible ways for associations to engage supporters in taking action. Most importantly, the efforts you are undertaking are visible by a wide swath of association members, who can directly engage in your campaigns from the comfort of their office, on the go, or from their couch at home with the click of a few buttons.

In public affairs, we often hear from groups about their issues when the government has already made a decision or when they are already far down that path. In those situations, we have to rapidly assist groups in mobilizing a response. The options are limited and the messages are pointed. Sometimes the medicine can be as bad as the illness for the group’s relationship with the government. They have to criticize the decision, confront the decision-makers, highlight flaws in the process and partner with the political opposition. Both sides have their heels dug in and neither has established a platform of trust. You may be all too familiar with these situations.

The far better option is to proactively engage with the government and to win champions for your profession, sector or issue before a problem emerges. We promote ten principles of advocacy in our lobbying operations that can all be well-supported through digital campaigns.

They are:

  1.  Have an annual advocacy plan
Your annual advocacy plan cannot avoid having a digital component.

  2.  Give credit early and often to decision-makers
Giving credit early and often to decision-makers can be done on social media or through a direct “thank you” letter campaign from your members or profession.

  3.  Frame advocacy in the public and consumer interest
Framing advocacy in the public and consumer interest is easy when you have members of the public or consumers directly engaging the MPs, provincial politicians or corporate leaders on your behalf.

  4.  Take a multi-partisan approach
Local champions can be easily embraced online, ensuring a multi-partisan approach to your campaign.

  5.  Seek supportive stakeholders
Supportive stakeholders can be encouraged to get involved with your campaign where you have shared priorities, and digital campaigns limit the overhead and work that goes into participation for their members as well.

  6.  Tie into government’s agenda
Not only can you tie into the government’s agenda through strategic messaging in a campaign, but you can also ensure the agenda reflects political will when hundreds or thousands of messages are received on your issue.

  7.  Be a player on every relevant government policy milestone
Campaigns can be updated at key government milestones like an election, a budget consultation or the introduction of legislation. All are opportunities to shift your message to meet the political mood of the day.

  8.  Host advocacy events
Advocacy events can be improved by adding a digital component. Whether you have a social media photo booth, a prop to demonstrate support or a petition-writing kiosk, your events will take on an additional dimension with digital advocacy. Members will feel more engaged in your government relations activities.

  9.  Understand and make use of traditional and social media
Making use of traditional and social media depends not just on spreading a message, but on creating a way to activate supporters. Get them sharing your hashtag; make sure they can visit your campaign microsite. Help them help you.

10.  Build and leverage grassroots advocacy
Finally, building and leveraging grassroots advocacy is that much easier with a digital campaign that helps you identify supporters and gather user information (lawfully, of course!)

(c) iStock.com/KeithBinns

Every one of these pillars can be shaped, or at least complemented, by digital advocacy solutions in 2020.

I recently met with a cabinet minister following a digital campaign who told me that without the thousands of letters written to members of Parliament and senators who pressured the government, the amendment our client was pushing for would never have been passed. That is the power of digital.

Social media posts, letters from local constituents and direct appeals for relief from unfair legislation all grab the attention of politicians. They know that their political careers depend on addressing the concerns of people in their riding and that for every one person who writes a letter to them there are 20 more who feel the same way about an issue.

Digital campaigns also offer data-savvy association executives more quantifiable reporting mechanisms for their boards of directors and membership. They allow for integrated targeting with social media advertising, they offer easy calls to action in organic campaigns, and they create a dialogue between your issue supporters and elected officials. They also increase the volume on policy issues that may not otherwise be getting adequate attention from government. When politicians and public servants are listening, it’s easier to open doors at the centre of government where change happens.

As we enter a new decade, there are serious changes happening in federal, provincial and municipal governments. I expect this trend to grow, especially as millennials have become the largest voting block and Generation Z comes of age behind them. CSAE is making it easy for association leaders to make the leap by launching CSAE Digital Advocacy. The service offers a subscription to run multiple campaigns annually at the federal, provincial and municipal levels with both letter writing and social media components. It also features easy-to-export analytics that help you and your staff sharpen your internal communications tactics. I am proud to be advising CSAE on the direction of this new tool, building on long-term exposure to the needs of association executives who have delivered advocacy results for their

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