Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Leadership and Congress (or Lack Thereof)

On June 27, the Post published a piece from former Senator Tom Daschle regarding the dirty leadership of Congress. You can read more about it at:

As we watch the talks on the debt ceiling and deficit reduction slowly and painfully start to fall apart, I think this question of leadership is paramount. For those who, thankfully, don't follow the day-to-day drama in Washington, DC, here's the scoop: First of all, there's a group of Senators (or is it a gaggle of Senators? I'm not sure) working on a cadre of proposed cuts designed to keep everyone equally satisfied enough to vote increase the so-called debt ceiling before the U.S. defaults on its loans. The group used to be called the gang of six, but, since one gave up and left, are now the fabulous five and, no doubt, will become the fearsome four soon.

Meanwhile in the House, a bi-partisan group has been trying to come up with a bazillion dollars in cuts in the federal budget, but everyone git cranky with each other over the question of taxes, so people their ball and went home. If it sounds like a schoolyard (or a soap opera) it kind of is.

So in my opinion here's the real problem: while our system of government is designed to encourage all the infighting and arguing, the Founding Fathers had some hope that someone would step-up and bring all these factions together. Unfortunately, right now everyone is sticking like glue to their side, with little thought of compromise.

For advocates, this means that maybe we'll have to be grown-ups. Maybe it means that we should let our legislators know "Hey, compromise is OK, it's how it's supposed to work." Too many people spend too much time telling elected officials that it's "my way or the highway." The only way we're to get out of this mess is if we we work together and maybe we as citizens need to set the example. If you'd like to do so, go to, look up your legislators and let them know what you think!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Advocacy, Advocacy Everywhere

I had the pleasure of being in Oklahoma (Norman, to be exact) during the tornado "outbreak" that occured several weeks ago and had my first experience with tornado sirens, shelters and the like (shout out to the Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service to whom I was speaking: it wasn't your fault!). What was perhaps even more disturbing than spending an hour in a concrete bunker was the fact that our impending doom was discussed for hours ahead of time on the local news.

However, one positive thing I got from all this was an understanding of all the various ways to describe "twisters" (as we tornado afficianados call them). These include maxi, grinder, multi-vortex, wedge, barrel, rope, elephant, stovepipe, EF4 and EF5 (and presumambly lower EF's), meso cyclones, tornadic super cells and, my favorite, "very well organized." Thank goodness. I don't want my tornadoes to be a mess.

All this made me realize that there are dozens of different ways to describe advocacy: grassroots, grasstops, education, public relations, lobbying -- the list goes on and on. So I took a moment to think about some of the general approaches I think are important to know about and to provide some definitions, as follows:

  1. Education: We often talk about the need to "educate" elected officials on the issues, but what does that mean? To me that means making sure they know who you are and what you do. It's a very important first step in effective advocacy, but it's only a first step. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking "hey, once they know what I do they'll be supportive." Not so much. You'll need to take a few extra steps to make that happen.

  2. Public Relations: Once your legislators know what you do, you want them to feel positively about it, right? That's where public relations comes in. These activities might include media outreach, advertising, coalition building or even community organizing. It's a critical step to getting legislators on your side.

  3. Advocacy: Advocacy is all about getting your legislators to take a specific action. It could be a policy action, like support a specific bill, or it could be a relationship building action, like come visit our facility. Either way, the most effective way to be sure your policymakers "get it" is to get them engaged.

  4. Lobbying: A lot of people think lobbying is a dirty word, but really it's not. To me, lobbying is all about the nitty-gritty of the legislative process (e.g., following the thousands of bills introduced or tracking down what section 672 of code number 435 will do), figuring out the specific ask, pulling together facts and figures on the issue and then putting together all the pieces for building support (citizen advocacy, education, PR, PACs, etc., etc.). Most citizen advocates will likely not be engaged in "lobbying" but you'll want to double-check the laws in your state because I don't want anyone to go to jail.

While these are just a few terms, I hope they're useful for making your advocacy approach as powerful as (and please not as destructive as) a tornado. Happy advocating!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Scandals, Twitter and Congress

Unless you've been living under a rock (and no, I don't want to insult rock dwellers) you've probably heard that a certain Congressman used a certain social media outlet to send pictures of certain parts of his anatomy to certain women. I realized that I can't type all the particulars because so many of them contain words that might be censored, particularly the Congressman's name.

In this whole situation there is one entity that I think needs defending -- and that is Twitter. To paraphrase an adage about guns (i.e, guns don't kill people, people do), "Twitter doesn't embarass people: people do." If there is any lesson to be learned from this whole sordid affair, it's that we all should be careful about a) what we post on the Internet and b) monitoring what others post because it's out there forever. The alternative is to not do embarassing things, but that doesn't seem like a very viable option for most of us.

I'm guilty of this too, of course. There are certainly unflattering pictures of me all over the Internet. I thought I was safe because these were taken before digital cameras (yes, I'm that old), but it turns out you can scan these pictures into a digital format and post them. Who knew?

All that said, social media approaches can be incredibly useful in grassroots advocacy efforts (as the advocacy guru you knew I'd get around to this). Once you stop snickering at the recent scandals (I admit, I'm not there yet), take a few quick and easy steps to use some of these outlets to promote your policy cause, including:

1) Facebook: Find your legislators on Facebook and "like" them. You don't have to actually like them, but it's a great way to keep track of what those legislators are up to as well as their general perspective on the world -- always good to know when you're advocating at them.

2) Twitter: As we've seen, sometimes legislators send out something totally inappropriate and that's always fun. But Twitter is also a good way, like Facebook, to learn more about their representatives' policy views.

3) You Tube: I learned recently that YouTube is the number two search engine after Google. Not only did this make me feel old (what are the kids doing these days?) but it made me realize my current videos are terrible. We're fixing that, but I think you'll find that many members of Congress have already figured this out and have many useful videos posted on their YouTube channels.

4) Linked In: Always a great resource for finding connections between your network and those you're trying to reach. Imagine the power of contacting a legislator through a mutual friend. The legislator is far more likely to take your call and perhaps even meet with you.

5) Two Way Street: No, that's not a social media channel, but it's always a good idea to ask legislators and their staff to follow you on all your own channels. You can make it even more appealing to them by posting videos of your meetings with them, positive updates about their work on your Facebook page and notes on your Twitter feed.

Take just one of these steps and you'll be using social media for good, not evil, in no time!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tips from Congressional Staff

I had the opportunity to attend a Women in Government Relations breakfast this morning where four Congressional staff offered their insights into what works and what doesn't on Capitol Hill. Following is my own list of "Top 7 Do's and Dont's" based on their insightful comments:

1. Identify the purpose of the meeting before going in: Whether it's helping them understand an issue, inviting them back to the district or making a specific policy ask, staff appreciate it when you know what you want to get out of the meeting.

2. Do your homework: Staff and members alike want to know how your issue relates to the state or district they represent. You must be able to answer the question that is in your audience's mind, which is "why would I want to meet with this person?" The reason they want to meet with you is because you represent the interests of constituents. As one staffer put it "I will always find a time to meet with a constituent: with a lobbyist? Not so much."

3. Don't be scared to talk about what the opposition is doing: Congressional offices will always find out what the other side is saying. Getting that information from you leaves them with the impression that your arguments are strong enough to stand up to criticism.

4. Start with the proper legislative staff: As on staffer put it "[a] request for a meeting with the member of Congress should come last, not first." You want to build your relationship with the staff person who handles the issues, as they will be the ones the member of Congress turns to at the last minute to make a decision.

5. Don't bring in a large group: Every staffer mentioned this rule. Congressional offices are tiny. There's no space for a large group and certainly no time for 30 people to talk at once. If you do have a large group, be prepared to have one or two people act as spokespeople.

6. Don't ignore district offices: Important relationships can be formed with the staff in the district offices. If they think well of you and your issues, it's far more likely that the DC staff will as well.

7. Remember that Congressional staff are people too: Staff people are eager to learn about the issues, but they need to have technical issues explained, as one staffer put it, in "clear simple English." Imagine you were explaining this issue to a vary smart person who has no experience with it -- because that is often the case. In addition, turn your meeting into a conversation. If you're a constituent, or you represent the interests of constituents, they want to know you, not just your issue.

Use these tips to build quality relationships with Congressional offices. If you do, you'll be an effective advocate in no time!