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Trust Me: The Key to Grassroots Advocacy

Originally posted on the Public Affairs Council Blog

If I were to pick the single most important factor behind a successful grassroots and advocacy strategy, I’d say it’s trust. Every component of grassroots advocacy, particularly those that pose the biggest challenges, can improve by building trust. Motivating advocates, educating elected officials, influencing legislation and regulation, increasing participation and doing more with less make up a small sample of those very challenges.

At the Public Affairs Council’s recent National Grassroots Conference, nearly 300 of the country’s leading grassroots professionals engaged in an extended conversation about what trust looks like in grassroots.

Jump-starting the conversation was Rohit Bhargava, author of the book Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action. Bhargava challenged us to think about five key components that build trust:

    • Truth
    • Relevance
    • Unselfishness
    • Simplicity
    • Timing

Some of these principles seem easier to follow than others when it comes to grassroots. And since we left Key West, I’ve been contemplating what I think these components look like day in and day out.

Truth

  1. Is your advocacy message truth or just perspective? The philosophical side of me questions whether there is such a thing as absolute truth. Isn’t everything some form of perspective — especially when it comes to public policy? Take a hard look at what you write and what you say. Would other people say it’s true? Would advocates and competitors alike find truth in it?
  2. Speaking of authenticity, ditch the spin. Believe that your advocates, the public and elected officials are smart enough to recognize when they’re being snowed.
  3. Be bold and unexpected. Be the first to address underlying issues. Is there some unflattering history that may keep people from seeing you as an expert on a particular topic? If so, be the first to bring it up. Perhaps that history has taught you lessons that can inform the debate moving forward. And recognize that there are other players in the mix who have their own perspective and truth. Be the organization at the table that acknowledges all of this.
  4. Be transparent and proud of your grassroots. While it’s easy to think of “transparency” as just the current buzzword, it doesn’t change the fact that transparency is a form of truth. Hill staff, the public and your employees and members are a savvy lot. It takes only a few minutes to find out who is behind an organized effort. Lead with that truth by explaining why your organization sees it as a responsibility to educate stakeholders and why you’re proud to offer them opportunities to engage in the political process.

Relevance

This may be the ideal time to trot out the phrase “All politics is local.” But what does that mean in real life?

  1. Be relevant in the lives of the advocates you want to engage. Dare I say it’s not all about you? An issue may be critical for your company or association, but you need to make the connection to why it’s critical in an individual’s daily life.
  2. Be relevant to the elected official. Lots of good arguments lose. Data and common sense don’t always drive decisions. And sometimes the other guy has better data and makes sense too. You must be relevant to elected officials by speaking their language. What motivates them: economic development? Industry? Fiscal responsibility? What’s their history on this issue? What will happen in their district or to their constituents as a result of the issue? Once you’ve thought through these answers, the key is to adapt your message to each legislator and provide what they need to support you — and it isn’t all about money.

Unselfishness

Good luck with that, the skeptic in me thinks. Can advocating a policy position be anything other than selfish? But before we run away from this challenge, let’s think about what it could look like.

  1. Shine the light on your advocates, not on your organization. Those messengers will be more compelling to elected officials anyway. Train them appropriately, trust them to carry the message, and then get out of their way. They’ll come back for more if they’re truly allowed to lead. Wouldn’t you?
  2. Find ways to help other departments and business units with their issues before you tell them why they need to help you with yours. Maybe that means you’ll have to squeeze in time to work on a second-tier issue, but you’ll often reap rewards later.
  3. Tell the overall advocacy story from the perspective of what it means for everyone else — not just what it means for your organization.

Simplicity

I’m the first one to say that the details matter. Legislation is typically complex, and the words that are used are important. But at the end of the day, do they matter as much if your audience has stopped listening? So how do you keep it simple and keep folks interested?

  1. Cut the jargon. It’s second-nature to us but generally sounds elitist to everyone else. Be real, be human, and save the SAT words for your daughter’s next vocabulary test.
  2. Chip away at the legalese. Don’t give up in your relentless pursuit to build a trusted relationship with your legal department that allows you greater flexibility in the language you use. Change may not happen overnight, but perhaps it will happen step by step. Don’t stop asking.
  3. Think about your audience. Is it simpler for them to have only one choice for action or a buffet from which they can choose? I’ll admit, Bhargava’s suggestion here jarred me a bit. Generally, I believe that successful advocacy comes from advocates being able to engage in a way that works for them. But he’s right — a list of five things you can do to take action can lead to analysis paralysis. So you need to think (and work) harder early on to identify advocates’ most likely action and then ask them to do that one thing.

Timing

How much is left to the fickle hand of fate? And how much sway can you have over it?

The key is to provide training and information on the people involved and how they tick and, second, on the issue itself and the path it is likely to take. Then, like any good strategist, map out the many directions your advocacy strategy may take while also finding your zen place, knowing you may cast that entire strategy aside for the right opportunity.

What Does It All Mean?

As I look back on each of these components, I ask myself what this means in terms of being the best grassroots leader, and my answer is this: The job of a grassroots professional isn’t primarily about the issue. Yes, you are challenged to deliver an outcome, but to do it successfully requires thinking less about the issue involved and more about the people. Why do they care? What do they need to understand? What tools do they need? And how can you empower them to speak on your behalf?

Trust me. If you build a strategy around the answers to these questions, you’ll see greater grassroots success.

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