Advocacy in the Age of COVID

Do you remember your last visit to a state capital – I mean a real visit, during which you actually entered a capitol building and met with a legislator or one of the staff? My last visits were over six months ago: Austin in late January, followed by day trips to Annapolis and Harrisburg. Since then, it’s all been video platforms such as Zoom, Teams, Google Meet. 

It’s just not the same. 

And it’s not going to be the same for a long time. I joined a session last week about lobbying in the age of COVID during the National Conference of State Legislature’s (NCSL) Base Camp– a virtual, but fantastic rendition of its annual Legislative Summit, cancelled by this year’s pandemic. 

My fellow panelists, Raul Burciaga, New Mexico’s Legislative Council Service Director and Peri Horowitz, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s General Assembly Office of Legislative Services described the capitol building environment and operations during COVID, that will likely mirror the experience legislatures around the country will face next session: very limited access into once very public capitols; stringent Floor and Committee room access restrictions; and, a growing number of states in which legislators have abandoned the capitol altogether, instead meeting and voting remotely or seriously considering it for 2021. (A side note: By our own count, 27 capitol buildings are currently closed to the general public.)

Capitol access aside, what is also lost is the fellowship among us government affairs professionals and the elected officials. Networking opportunities have evaporated over the last six months, with the Groups meetings, campaigning and even receptions and fundraisers gone digital. Members have closed their offices to the public for health and safety reasons and many staff now work remotely. And the traditional post-session day activity of debriefing at the bar or a restaurant in Albany, Columbus, Harrisburg, Sacramento – pick a capital – is likely gone for this session, due to closed pubs and bad pandemic optics. Said one Illinois legislator who attended my session, “those chats over dinner, drinks, coffee, hallways, etc. are a tremendously important, and oftentimes underappreciated, part of the process. And access to legislators both through the official proceedings channel (session, committees) and unofficial channel (all those listed above) is almost non-existent these days.” 

Maybe worse, most of us road warriors are grounded. The State Governmental Affairs Council (SGAC) has been surveying its members about travel during the pandemic. Spoiler alert here: SGAC was generous enough to share some of the early survey responses with me and it’s telling. Nearly 160 of their members (almost 65% of the respondents) currently have a travel ban in effect – they’re not flying to state capitals. And over a third of the respondents have no idea when they will be boarding a flight again. January…sometime in Q1…next summer? No one knows for sure. For those us accustomed to being in the air or on the road, this experience couldn’t be more frustrating.

This is a real problem for us. Government affairs is a relationship business; it’s a people business. The advocacy we perform for our clients and employers is a contact sport, which is incongruous with the trending social distancing protocols. 

So how do you begin adjusting your advocacy planning to return value to your program and increase human interactions especially now that many capitols are closed, access to legislators is limited and Groups events have gone virtual? Below are just a few thoughts I shared with the NCSL audience:

First, Manage your Expectations

The 2021 session season is not going to be the year for expansive proactive advocacy efforts. There will certainly be the usual group of legislative issues that we see introduced every session, but COVID-19 related measures, economic recovery and a wide range of budget, tax and revenue raising proposals are going to consume the agenda. How you fit your priorities within these issues will be key to making progress and measuring your success. And managing those expectations among your leadership, internal and external clients should be among your first order of business. This is going to be a season of singles and doubles and even fewer homeruns. 

Hire the Right Lobbyist

Ok, this sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious. 

Not all lobbyists are the same – some are bill killers, some are subject matter or process experts, some make their living simply leveraging their access to the Speaker, the leaders or other players within the legislature or administration. And, of course, not all engagements are the same. But I would strongly argue that those contract lobbyists with the phone and text relationship with leadership, Committee chairs and the key staff are going to be the real heroes in the upcoming session season. You know these people: they are the lobbyists capable of reaching a member on the Floor or in a Committee room – or are able to pull them out in the hallway (or maybe out of the capitol) for a conversation with a single text or cell call. They may not be your best report writers or use the latest video platforms, but they are connected. That veteran, seasoned lobbyist with the right relationships will be key to you advancing your agenda this session.

Advocacy and Trade Associations

You are probably not traveling to Albany, Columbus, Harrisburg or Sacramento next year. The LOCAL in-state advocacy association or trade association in which you participate – the chambers, manufacturing associations, industry associations, retailers – are going to be critical to your advocacy success if you do not have a contract lobbyist, or to complement their work. Finally getting around to knowing them better in December is not the right time; make it a priority to strengthen those relationships right now, get to know their lobbyists and leadership; and find a way to participate in these organizations now, even if only virtually. 

Revisit Personal Relationships with Legislators and Staff

Right now is the time to inventory your own relationships in the states and find opportunities to re-familiarize yourself with them. Of course, you should adopt this practice absent a pandemic. In sales, this is called increasing the touchpoints. Any time a legislator comes in contact with you or your brand (read: your organization), it is a touchpoint. This is critical even if you have a contract lobbyist on retainer – the relationships that you build, nurture and grow are organic; you only rent your lobbyist’s relationships. Reconnect with these policymakers that you know or have met offline and stay in touch with them; email them or call and ask how you can assist them; bring them political capital; support their reelection efforts (reminder that there are now 35 days until the election); and generally find ways to remind them WHO YOU ARE. But always come with more than just an ask. 

Elected Officials Groups such as NCSL, CSG, ALEC and the alphabet soup of 527 Groups

Lean heavily on the state elected officials organizations in which your organization participates. The staff of these organizations are the people who can warm up a cold call.

The immediate practical problem of “virtual” Groups events and meetings is that it translates into less real face time with targeted policymakers and staff. So consider becoming more involved in a “leadership” role of a Group. The continuity of your participation in between meetings – and especially in a leadership role – adds both credibility to you and your organization and raises your profile as a known and respected quantity among the Groups staff and elected leadership. Several of the policy-oriented Groups have a foundation, advisory committee or some vehicle by which the private sector can provide input into the policymaking, contribute to the education of their constituent members or, at the very least, better inform you about the Groups’ activities online and off. 

And the 527 Groups offer myriad participation levels that almost always include access to the elected officials participating, sponsorships and private briefings. Bundling your clients, members or peers contributions puts you on their finance committees, which is always appreciated and recognized by the electeds, especially with just over 30 days until the general election. And even if the Group you are targeting does not offer this opportunity – or your own tight budget does not permit a contribution – you can always “lead” by providing expertise, resources or bringing new policymakers from your state to the Group – these gestures can yield high returns in terms of political capital, especially during this lean time. 

Social Media and Micro-Targeting Advocacy

You might not have access to your own social media apparatus for advocacy purposes, so you should seriously consider leveraging your organization’s social media program for government affairs. Utilizing social media advocacy strategies is another critical tool to consider next session, if you haven’t already – without real “boots on the ground,” digital efforts to mobilize grassroots, recruit support for an issue or message policymakers are now more important than ever. Facebook and Twitter saw increases in the usage of all of their apps by almost 70% over the months of March through June. For good or ill, people – policymakers included – are using these channels to stay connected, entertained and informed during the pandemic. But the practice has to continually evolve to be effective in our incredibly competitive digital marketplace. 

One of those evolutions is so-called Micro-Targeting – the shiny new technology in advocacy. The practice uses people’s data – and their online behavior and interests – to segment them into small groups for tailored content, message and social media targeting. It is expensive, but its advocates and practitioners argue that it is much more effective in reaching (and influencing) policymakers than other oversaturated social media channels.

The truth is that no one has any idea what the next six to 12 months will look like, how our once routine interactions with policymakers will be affected or how our mobility as state government affairs professionals will be impacted. The internal and external pressures on state and local policymakers were endless before this pandemic and it’s hard to measure the appetite for more, primarily commercial, advocacy messages as they try to juggle governing during a crisis. But we can definitely start planning now for some of the worst case scenarios I describe above. You and I might not see the inside of a state capitol dome for some time, but we can all begin to take action to adjust our programs to the new limitations in this age of COVID. 



Michael BehmMichael J. Behm is Co-Chief Executive Officer and one of the firm’s Principals. He has been advising Stateside’s private sector and federal agency clients about state and local issue management for over 25 years. He directs Stateside’s advocacy efforts on a range of commercial issues and hires and manages state and local lobbyists. His work has brought him to most of the state capitals around the country and has yielded an extensive network of relationships with legislative leaders and other public officials. Complete bio here.