Make the Media Part of Your Legislative Advocacy Campaign

By Al Rothstein

Your association is looking ahead to the next legislative session. Your lobbyists have been working hard to make sure the votes are there on the bills you want passed. And you know your opponents are gearing up as well.

There are certain lawmakers you can count on-the bills' sponsors and the legislators with whom your association has carefully developed relationships over the past few years. But you can't be so sure about some others. Either they are new and unfamiliar with your issues, or they have not voted your way in the past.

Your lobbyists are looking to your communication staff for help. What can you do to get the best results?

A Powerful Tool

While your association's lobbyists and members are busy meeting individually with legislators, writing letters, and making phone calls, sometimes another effective means of persuasion gets lost: strategically placed news stories about your issue in targeted media outlets.

Such stories reach thousands of people (or millions, if your placement appears in the national media) and can make the difference between legislative success and "wait 'till next year." If you know how to work with them skillfully, the news media are the most powerful and efficient tool available to sway public and legislative opinion.

A recent example of how this can work: The lobbyist for one of my clients called to strategize about a story a TV reporter was developing on an issue we are fighting for. The lobbyist closed our conversation with, "It's the station every legislator watches." We were able to help the reporter develop a piece that told our story in a meaningful, clear way-just before a crucial committee vote. The vote turned out to be favorable to our side.

What makes a news story meaningful from an advocacy standpoint?

It's important to find examples of people who will actually be affected by the bill. For example, if your association represents the convenience store industry and you're advocating for a bill that would keep large shopping stores out of your members' areas, your media efforts should feature a convenience store owner. This person would describe the convenient lifestyle enjoyed by those using their stores to fill up with gas on their way from work, their customers' fears about the increase in traffic, and the risk that this small-business owner might lose out in the face of overwhelming competition.

Of course, the ideal is that at the conclusion of the story, the reporter would urge people to contact their lawmakers with their opinions.

When lawmakers (whether in Congress or in state legislatures) see news stories and editorials with your point of view and realize that their constituents are persuaded by those media placements, your message gets through loudly, clearly, and with positive results. 

Media Strategy Tips

Developing a specific media strategy for legislative advocacy takes homework, planning, media savvy, and legwork. Briefly, here are the main steps.

  1. Identify the particular lawmakers responsible for your legislation. Then remember: Your media campaign is geared to them.

  2. Shape your message for impact. Consider again the convenience store illustration above. It's important to identify real people who are affected by the legislation you want (or don't want) passed. How these people are helped or hurt by the legislation should be at the core of your message. As you're figuring out how to express this, be sure to prepare points that respond to what your opponents might say. 

  3. Choose and prepare the best spokespersons. Whether these are people affected by the issue, representatives of your association, or both, they should have the skills to deliver your message effectively. As part of their preparation, give them succinct talking points and make sure they get training on handling media interviews.

  4. Remember that your association's cause will, inevitably, encounter opposition. Figure out the best ways for your spokespersons to respond. For example, help them think through how to turn a negative question around and deliver a positive message. In addition, coordinate responses carefully so your spokespersons stay on the same page.

  5. Prepare press releases and media pitches containing your chosen message. Customize these to the areas and audiences to which you are sending the releases. Certain communities or constituencies may be affected differently, and your media interview contacts may vary from place to place as well. It is important to know whether the journalist prefers e-mail, phone, fax, or snail mail. 

  6. Target key media outlets. In a legislative advocacy campaign, sending releases to all media is usually a waste of time. So before you start to pitch, determine which media will yield the best results. Identify all outlets in a particular lawmaker's district, and then figure out which outlets will generate the most attention-television, radio, newspapers, or the Internet.

  7. Follow up on your releases and pitches. This will make a big difference in getting your stories covered. Two tips: Contact the reporter early in the day, and do so by phone, which I've had much more success with than by e-mail.

  8. Remember that media tours can be very effective. Making personal visits to media representatives and defining your issues for them in a manner that meets their story needs will not only help your current campaign, It will also help your future efforts, since you're establishing relationships with reporters who cover your industry. These media tours can easily coincide with visits to editorial boards. 

  9. Measure your media results to show lawmakers. Your lobbying is greatly enhanced when you present key lawmakers with all the stories and editorials that express your viewpoint. One good format for presenting your results is through a brief flyer summarizing your media coverage. But the most effective technique is to hand the lawmaker copies of actual articles and editorials.

Don't forget the editorial page

One other form of media placement with great credibility involves the newspaper editorial page. You can work on letters to the editor, Op-Eds (which run opposite the Editorial Page), and endorsements of your issues written by the newspaper's own editorial staff. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each.

  1. Newspaper endorsements. Although these are the hardest placements to get, they are usually very effective. However, if the newspaper is known as especially "liberal" or "conservative," an editorial in your favor can sometimes work against you.

  2. Op-Eds. These have credibility because they're part of the editorial section. However, the newspaper staff may also ask your opponents to respond. Don't let that stop you from pursuing these articles, though. Be proactive! The best person to author an Op-Ed is a person who's actually affected by the legislation. This person can receive assistance in developing the Op-Ed from you or a public relations professional representing your association.

  3. Letters to the editor. These are effective with readers because they are short and concise, usually just 100 to 250 words. They are also the easiest to get published in a timely fashion. You might be able to call the newspaper, let the editorial staff know the letter is coming, and ask if it can be published before that committee vote in a few days! Again, the best authors are actually affected by the legislation.

Focus on the essentials

Whatever medium you choose, the important thing is to be sure your message is shaped to persuade, your audience is properly identified, and your spokespeople are prepared. If so, your media legislative advocacy campaign will be a remarkably effective tool in helping your lobbying efforts reach your legislative goals.