Research Results! The Bottom Line Value of Corporate Lobbying

PAC Fundraising in Tough Economic Times

All breeds of fundraisers, specifically PAC fundraisers, are facing challenges, ostensibly due to current economic conditions. We say “ostensibly” because the economy represents another timely, convenient objection to PAC contributions. We aren’t sure that “the economy” is a true objection, or just another convenient excuse not to contribute. Nevertheless, it got us thinking about how to address the challenge.

However, we are going to take a step back from the premise and look at the big picture before addressing the influence options. We disagree that fundraising difficulty, particularly in the business community, is all about tough economic times. The fact that corporate PAC contributions have remained very stable over the last 20 years, despite all of the shared “best practices,” is compelling evidence that there are other forces at work which impede big breakthroughs in PAC fundraising. More recently it’s the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and let’s not forget the previous presidential candidates. Senator Barack Obama did not taking lobbyist-raised funds, and Senator John McCain made sure no lobbyists were employed by his campaign. Our audiences are being told that the government affairs profession is not just a bit shady, but execrable.

Building homes, giving away drugs, and planting trees will not stop the onslaught. Organizations who want to give back and in turn help improve their public image have been doing these types of projects for years–but has it blunted the negativity from popular culture, academia, and the media? Hardly. And let’s not forget movies and TV programs as drivers of culture and thought. When was the last time you saw a movie where a large organization was the “good guy?” In the minds of today’s public, big is the problem.

Our PAC prospects may feel more allegiance to various causes that actively work against our organizations than to the source of their income. Drawing a paycheck or paying association dues does not translate into allegiance. So, one of the critical tasks for government relations professionals is to create an emotional allegiance strategy.

OK, we are off that soapbox. What are some strategies for getting PAC contributions when your prospects can easily use the “tough economy” as the objection du jour?

Harness Their Ideologies

There are many ways to keep contributions rolling in, even during tough times. One way is to appeal to your PAC prospects’ ideologies. Kelton addressed this topic during his “Ideological Influence” workstorm at a Innovate to Motivate conference: “When people face doubt and despair, they ‘go ideological.’ They cling to their ideologies in times of trouble.” For example, whether there was any real “coming together” in the immediate wake of September 11 is debatable; factions emerged almost immediately. Some families of 9/11 victims were immediately calling for an armed response; others were just as quickly organizing peace rallies and war protests. Facing a surprise attack, an uncertain future, and an ambiguous enemy, most Americans ran to their ideologies for guidance on how to respond.

This tells us that successful fundraisers need to understand and harness their audiences’ ideologies. Using the same arguments to persuade hundreds or thousands of potential PAC contributors isn’t a wise move. We must segment our audiences according to their value systems, or at least restrict our messages to arguments that most value systems would support. Collecting value system information and using it to segment can be challenging, but can be done with careful research, some of which asks oblique questions that are known to correlate with known value systems. Armed with such research, the requestor can have a much better idea of what types of arguments are likely to play well with their various audiences. Speaking to audiences in the language they will accept is an important part of the persuasion process.

Patriotism Doesn’t Work

Using tired patriotic bromides, while popular, hasn’t proved to be a persuasive tactic. (And Amy admits that she used her share before she “knew better.”) We have noticed this with clients who ask us to do PAC and/or grassroots message testing and framing research. In ten years, we personally have never had a PAC contributor tell us that pride in America or patriotism was a rationale for their PAC contribution. Because each client project has its’ own variables, we didn’t make a generalized conclusion from that until. . . an analysis of years of data across a very diverse client base showed there was a pattern.

However, what usually appears on PAC promotional materials? You got it, great photos of the flag, the U.S. Capitol, and of course the required patriotic quotes. Why? Because it inspires us. But we aren’t the audience. Is overuse of this technique one of the reasons that the percent of PAC participation has remained relatively stagnant over the past 20 years, despite an onslaught of sharing (and stealing) “best practices?” We think it’s a big contributor.

Now, before you become violent, there’s nothing wrong with injecting patriotism into your request; however, it’s quite common, yet we don’t see a big uptick in PAC contributions as a result. In fact, in Dr. Frank Luntz’s book “Words that Work,” he documents that using patriotism to sell products, services, or ideas falls flat with most audiences, especially those under age 30.

The bottom line? Look at the big picture, conduct solid research to harness ideologies and values, and wave the flag, but don’t wrap yourself in it.