I read a recent article in Roll Call entitled “Single Voice Sinks Coast Guard Rule.” It told the story of Susan Balistrei who “single- handily” caused the Coast Guard to rescind a regulation relative to life jacket design. The article was also featured in the September 27 edition of the K Street Cafe blog: http://www.kstreetcafe.com/
The Coast Guard issued a new rule regarding life jacket design without providing for public comment because it “considered this rule to be noncontroversial and did not expect any adverse comment.” Balistreri wrote to the Coast Guard that aspects of the regulation could enable currently approved inflatable products to be marketed to teens, and that these life jackets weren’t safe for teenagers. The Coast Guard withdrew the rule.
Many times we read these kind of articles and use them as examples for grassroots volunteer motivation without looking at the underlying factors behind the successful persuasion effort. Then a chain of events ensues. Our volunteers think their one communication can change the mind of a powerful person, they try it, it doesn’t work, they become de-motivated, and drop out of your grassroots program.
As with any influence attempt, the devil is in the details. As I always say, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s never just one thing.” It’s best to know the “story behind the story” in these inspirational examples and put all of the pieces of the influence puzzle together. Otherwise, we are inflating our volunteers’ expectations about what it really takes to influence at the grassroots.
She’s Not “Just Anyone”
In The Underdog Edge, I advise that successful underdogs generally form teams of people to make a change, and that those team members have to have certain characteristics to be successful, otherwise all teams would win. Something we find when we read between the lines about Ms. Balistreri is that she isn’t just “anyone.”
Number one, she is an expert. She has been an independent consultant to life jacket manufacturers for three decades. Her letter to the Coast Guard consisted of eight pages. She’s not just “any person.”
Connected with Relationships
Number two, she’s connected. She has relationships with people at the Coast Guard. Also in the fine print, the article states that Jeff Hoedt, chief of the Boating Safety Division at Coast Guard Headquarters said that “he has known Balistreri for years (emphasis mine) and that she continues to work on life jacket design.” He continued, “She has been a member of a National Advisory Council on Boating Safety (expert status again) and she has some background on how the Coast Guard functions.”
As I found out when doing the research for my book, The Underdog Edge, some underdogs are more persuasive than others. Susan Balistreri embodies many of those characteristics.
The bottom line? One person can sometimes make a difference if you have expertise, and are connected to the right people. But “just anyone” probably can’t. Let’s be honest with our advocates and remind them of these nuances to grassroots influence in the months and years ahead!