Small Scale Grassroots-Large Scale Impact

By Constance Campanella, President and CEO

Recently, my colleague Heather Williams and I helped our client win a major victory against a coalition of NGO’s intent on putting it out of business. The “witches brew” bill, introduced at the mid-point of the legislative session, was poorly drafted and full of ridiculous mandates. It was supported by a broad coalition of community organizations, some prominent state legislators, the AG’s staff and some traditional media outlets. The campaign supporting the bill was underway quietly for almost a year before it was introduced and a dubious “white paper” gave the endeavor an air of legitimacy. Simply put, we were way behind from the start.

We quickly engaged lobbyists, but we knew that because of the NGO’s activities (tracked daily on Twitter through Social Media SNAPSHOT reports) we also needed a grassroots campaign. Fortunately, we have confronted similar situations with this client in other states and we have a formula for putting an effective grassroots program in place almost instantly.

From start to finish the campaign lasted nine weeks, during which time hundreds of personal letters from employees and customers of our client and others in the same industry were written and delivered to the key committee members. Hundreds of personal letters. No emails. No petitions. No forms. Just personal, from the heart, from experience, letters from real constituents. One of the highlights of the campaign for me was listening to a state legislator during the first legislative hearing quote from the letters from his constituents. He used his constituent’s own words to challenge a witness who claimed our client’s service had no value commensurate with the cost.

To safeguard client confidentiality, I cannot share too many details, but I can tell you that the client has storefronts across the U.S. and a broad, loyal customer base. They also have a diverse employee contingent that works very closely with customers. As a company, they have decades of experience fighting adverse legislation so the full management team–from the CEO on down–are well aware of the dangers and are committed to engaging.

But they do not have a formal grassroots program comprising both employees and customers and, in that respect, are similar to many other companies.

Wish lists for State Government Relations (SGR) programs typically include additional grassroots capabilities. Why? Because traditional lobbying has its limits and adding real constituents with real concerns and real messages to the campaign can make a world of difference.

However, the reality is that many organizations are not going to get their wish. Large scale, institutionalized grassroots programs are expensive to create, costly to maintain and, on the state level, not used frequently enough to justify the cost. As a result, many SGR programs go without.

That is unnecessary.

As we demonstrated in this case and in others across the U.S., almost any SGR program can stand up a legislative grassroots campaign quickly with a little advance planning, some ongoing “care and feeding” of the network and precise engagement. Here’s how:

1. Keep Lists Current – Maintain your most basic and important lists and keep them available. Know store locations, manufacturing facilities and numbers of employees in each. These are your honey pots for grassroots. If your legislative monitoring or Social Media Monitoring alerts you to a problem, you should know within minutes if activating a grassroots component is possible.

2. Work With What You Have – Identify the categories of colleagues within your organization that you can most easily reach and activate. If that limits you to senior and middle management–take it, because they can work down into the organization. If you can activate employees on the store or plant level without much trouble, go for it. Too many times we beat our heads against walls trying to get direct access to everybody everywhere and some corporate cultures just eschew that. Take what you have and build from there.

TIP: Check with your trade association and inventory its ability to contribute grassroots action as well. Other companies in your industry following the same model will multiply the impact.

3. Communicate Strategically and Often – To build an active network, use whatever communication tools work best within your company. Email and traditional employee intranets are the most common channels, although the social intranet is starting to gain ground. Just pick the one used by most of the colleagues you must reach. A brief weekly/biweekly report about issues of concern can be very effective in raising awareness of the pressures your organization faces. That does three things: a) you are familiarizing your colleagues with your role, b) you are familiarizing your colleagues with issues that affect your organization and c) you are alerting them that their direct involvement may be needed in the future. In other words, you are warming up the audience so that when you need them to stand or applaud, they will be ready.

TIP: Most states require you to report grassroots expenditures on your lobbying reports.

4. Identify Targets – As soon as you determine that you have to work a bill and have grassroots resources in that state, have your lobbyists identify the targets for grassroots. You are the coach, but the lobbyists call the plays.

TIP: Accept the fact that while most legislators hate grassroots contacts, they listen to them if they are genuine.

5. Keep It Genuine – Customers and front-line employees are not going to be credible talking about the fine details and nuance of proposed legislation. I have heard state government relations executives struggle with how to get sophisticated letters from “regular folks.” Often, it ends up being an excuse for not deploying grassroots. That’s a mistake. What legislators need to hear from constituents is their experience, their loyalty, their concerns and the fact that they are watching the legislative process. We, the professionals, can then take it to the next level with the lawmakers.

A few handwritten, from-the-heart, letters are worth a mountain of canned, grassroots-spam.

TIP: Direct your letter writers to include full names, addresses and phone numbers on their letters. Any letter without an address or at least a town will be thrown away. And, include the bill number in the letter to make it easy for legislative staff to sort them for the lawmaker.

If you are working with customers and employees, do your best to get a copy of each letter before it is mailed or delivered. Sharing excerpts internally–preserving the privacy of the author–is a great way to motivate additional participation.

6. Reward and Recognize – When the campaign is over, take the time to thank all employees that participated and report the details of the outcome. A thank you email or letter should always be part of the wrap up, and recognition amongst peers and supervisors goes a long way.

CONCLUSION: While there are many excuses and reasons not to deploy grassroots, if your organization has the basic elements and you follow these simple steps, you can enhance the effectiveness of your state advocacy program.

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