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!

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