Virtually every aspect of life has been upended by COVID-19, and political advocacy is no exception. The state of play in Sacramento has been radically upended both on issues and on process. Policy makers are rightfully focused on the most pressing COVID-19 responses, and members and staff are scattered throughout the state working from home, with no guarantee as to when they will return to the capital. But although they are not concentrated in Sacramento, their work continues. In fact, the actions of government are more top of mind to Californians than ever before. The question during times of crisis is not whether the work of government goes on. The question is how organizations must adapt their advocacy approaches. The changed realities of how legislatures are conducting their work point the way to strategies that can make a bigger impact than ever. The approaches discussed below include a heightened value on digital communications, grassroots advocacy, press, and audience target research.
The State of Play
For lobbyists, companies, trade associations, and other organizations with public policy issues in Sacramento, the environment has been transformed in several ways:
- Members and staff are scattered around the state, and this will continue for the foreseeable future. Even when the legislature returns, it may be back only briefly for critical votes. And high risk members (including several committee chairs) may remain in their districts for the rest of the year;
- In-person lobbying is suspended for now, and the opportunities to lobby in person are likely to be dramatically reduced even when the legislature returns;
- The legislature is likely to adopt bill introduction limits and other rule changes that will significantly reduce the volume of legislation that moves;
- The state budget is being dramatically impacted. Revenues will be scarce, making it harder to pass bills with fiscal impacts;
- Members, staff, and constituents are on their screens much more as they are working from home;
- The vast majority of press coverage is related to COVID-19. The opportunities to drive press on issues not related to the virus have been dramatically reduced;
- Given the urgency of the COVID-19 press stories, members and staff are even less likely to see press on other issues unless it is digitally delivered to them.
Because of all of these changes, the question for advocates is how to advance their issues in this new environment.
How Advocates Must Adapt
As various interests compete for limited resources, the competition to get your issue addressed will be even fiercer than before. With one-on-one lobbying limited for the foreseeable future, advocates must deploy the tools of fully integrated campaigns to succeed. Integrated campaigns bring the complete chest of advocacy tools to bear. Beyond traditional lobbying, these tools include the following:
In the COVID-19 world, digital communications are more impactful than ever because members and staff are online more. This is also true for their key constituents, as is seen by the fact that the internet is literally slowing down from record traffic. Examples of digital communications that can be effectively deployed in the the current environment include the following platforms, all of which are seeing enormously increased traffic:
- Banners and other static ads targeted to key audiences;
- Video ads on platforms such as Video-on-Demand Facebook, local news sites,
YouTube, Hulu, and other Over-The-Top (OTT) Apps;
- Audio ads on Pandora, Spotify, and podcasts.
In the past, the vast majority of digital communications targeted Sacramento. But these campaigns are obsolete until the legislature returns, and even then, that return is likely to only be brief. Reaching policy makers at their homes requires more sophisticated digital campaigns. Neptune Ops employs several high-tech tools that allow us to reach members and staff wherever they are. And we can now communicate without the noise competition from other campaigns that were traditionally focused on Sacramento.
In some campaigns such as ballot initiatives, television ads are often used to reach voters. But if campaign dollars become stretched because of the economic impacts of the virus, digital campaigns can serve as a more cost-effective replacement. Another efficient substitute for expensive television ads is targeted OTT video ads on channels such as Hulu, Roku, and other on-demand networks found on Apple TV and Amazon Firestick. These channels have seen huge increases in traffic over the last year as more people are cutting the cord from cable. But the platforms have even greater reach now as people are spending more time at home from COVID-19. These ads allow advocates to reach highly targeted constituent groups such as members of particular professions, demographics, and micro-targeted geographies.
With scarce legislative time, members will not be able to deliver on many of their pre-corona legislative priorities. It will therefore be particularly critical for members to be responsive to constituent communications. With members and staff unable to have in-person meetings, the vast majority of their constituent communications will be digitally delivered. Voters may not be able to request meetings with their members or participate in lobby days at the capitol for some time, but they can replace these in-person communications with emails, tweets, and other digital communications.
If an advocacy issue is related to COVID-19, there are ample opportunities to drive press around the topic. But for issues not related to the virus, the media space and reporter bandwidth has been dramatically reduced. The best press strategy in this environment is to seek press coverage in more targeted media outlets such as trade press that continue to cover specific industries. Then with surgical digital strategies, this press can be targeted and re-targeted to members and staff.
Audience Target Research
To capture the attention of policy makers or key voters while there are so many issues shouting for their attention, it is critical to speak to the issues besides COVID-19 that matter the most to your target audiences. Through precision research, Neptune Ops uncovers what topics move particular policy makers and key voters the most. We then frame issues in these terms to break through the noise.
Integrated campaigns are not just a short term fix for the corona-age. Technology has transformed every sector of the economy, and political advocacy was already being upended by digital tools that allow advocates to “lobby” policy makers all day long. But like many developments in society such as working from home, grocery shopping online, and showering occasionally, the virus has accelerated this trend. Advocates who learn to deploy the tools of integrated campaigns now, will also be the advocates who win when the virus is gone, but when the new normal remains.