In the interest of equal time, here are my thoughts relative to my grassroots compatriots. These are my favorites, not in any particular order. I provide these because words matter.
How we talk about grassroots sends clear signals to our volunteers as to what’s possible, and most important, our attitude toward them. These tips may help you to avoid the “trial and terror” approach to grassroots recruiting.
Drum roll, please. . .
1. “When we contact you to communicate with your legislator, it may be the first time you’ve heard from us, but we just can’t predict the legislative process.”
True, we cannot predict the legislative process. If we could, no one would need lobbyists or grassroots networks. However, certainly any government affairs department that is budget-worthy should have some knowledge of the issues that will be debated in the upcoming legislative session. It is just not fair or realistic to expect a voluminous grassroots response the first time your volunteers have heard of an issue.
Our audience needs to be edified and equipped. To that end, prioritize your issues each year, and notify your grassroots advocates well in advance of your action calls or legislative alerts. Start educating and influencing early.
2. “Thanks, you did a great job!” (smartly accessorized with the requisite thumbs up gesture).
This is usually uttered after successful meetings on the Hill or State House, or after an action call/legislative alert, etc. And, it is better than saying nothing. However, considering the time, effort and thought that goes into grassroots advocacy, we can do better. They are volunteers. They do not have to do anything for us.
Rather than “good job”, how about something more specific that enumerates the value of what they just did and the results to the organization? People have a craving to know the significance of their work. It’s our job, no, our privilege to tout the significance in each grassroots activity.
3. “We can’t possibly quantify our results.”
My natural response to this is “Then why bother?” Grassroots can be measured beyond the ubiquitous number of contacts with legislator. I have come up with over 40 grassroots metrics, and my colleague, Peter Kennerdell and I have devised over 30 PAC metrics. In today’s hypermetric world, government relations professionals cannot afford to neglect this important aspect of their work. It impacts our credibility and professional reputation.
4. “Email is the best way to influence your legislator.”
No explanation needed, you all know where I stand on this one. The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that face to face communication is the best way to influence. If email was the most influential way to communicate, we wouldn’t need professional lobbyists. We all could save lots of money by asking them to work two hours a day and send emails to legislative staff.
I will admit that this is something your volunteers want to hear, but it’s not what they need to hear. If their question is: “What’s the fastest, easiest way to communicate with my legislator?”, this is the answer. But “fast and easy” and “influence” are not the same.
5. “We like to use (emphasis on the word “use”) employees (or retirees, shareholders, pick your group) to communicate with legislators.”
I hear this refrain when I am with a group of government relations professionals talking about who they prefer to recruit and activate on their issues. It’s as if their volunteers are some type of handheld electronic device.
When I hear the word “use” it gives me that queasy feeling that the person saying this probably does not have their advocates’ interests at heart, and really views them as a means to an end, rather than individuals who should be served and receive value from the organization. Better words are “engage” or “activate.”
6. “When you meet with your legislator, just tell your story – that’s all they need to know.”
Anyone who knows our practice philosophy knows that Dr. Kelton Rhodes and I are big believers in the persuasive power of oral narrative, and teach people how to create compelling stories. However, we have to remember that legislators hear lots and lots of stories. If stories were all that were needed, then everyone would win their issues because everyone knows to “tell your story.”
Grassroots advocacy is a competition. We have to be better than the next guy in line. Thus, try telling your advocates: “Tell your story, and be aware of what the opposition is saying, as well.” This is a more realistic advisory.
Of course, as a savvy government relations professional, you have an issues historian who knows what your opponents have said in the past and are currently saying about you and your issues, right? You are relaying this to your volunteers, are you not?
7. “It doesn’t matter what you think, this is the company’s position.” (for my corporate friends)
This response hardly engenders any type of credibility and goodwill. Rather than wailing and hand – wringing about those who “don’t get it,” we really should be asking ourselves, “Why don’t they get it?”
When someone publicly defects from the company fold on public policy positions, congratulate them for thinking independently about the issue, and then urge them to write their legislator with their point of view. One of my grassroots leaders said this to a disgruntled employee, and the employee became a program acolyte due to the lack of bias demonstrated by the volunteer leader. It was a veritable clinic on how to build credibility.
In addition, I recommend that you incessantly acknowledge that you welcome independent employee thinking and dialogue. Employees may not possess the depth of issue knowledge that we do, but they are not stupid. Give them both sides of the issue! If we can’t persuade our own employees, how will we persuade the public? Challenges in this area tell me that a client has a low influence IQ and needs to gain the emotional allegiance of their associates.