Many organizations hold a fly-in — or “Hill Day” or legislative conference. But not every organization does it well, leveraging the opportunity to build relationships not only with legislators, but also with advocates.
Fly-ins are a big investment. According to the Public Affairs Council’s 2015 Fly-In Strategy Survey, associations budget $121,000 and corporations budget $96,000 for their events. As such, they shouldn’t be just a “check-the-box” item on your annual calendar.
Here are some tenets of a successful event:
Bigger is not necessarily better
What are your organization’s goals that you are accomplishing at this event? Is it to have a noticeable presence on the Hill wearing white coats, hard hats or some other noticeable emblem of your industry or organization? If so, large may be effective. But if you have a specific policy goal, or want to develop the relationships your key contacts have with legislators and their staff, smaller events may be more impactful. Nearly one-third of associations and corporations hold multiple fly-in events each year. These could be small gatherings of leadership committees and boards that you take up to the Hill or targeted efforts to bring in effective communicators when your issues are front and center. While most organizations plan one “big” event, smaller supporting events throughout the year can help you target outreach on key policy issues as they arise.
Even the best advocates need a little help
Most fly-in programs build in at least some training on key issues ahead of or during the event. But is that enough? Do your advocates know how to share their story? Do they know what to expect when they walk into a congressional office? Top organizations use their fly-ins to train advocates not only to go to the Hill, but to be effective spokespeople and grassroots organizers throughout the year.
Also, storytelling is taking an increasingly big part of fly-in agendas in an effort to make advocates feel comfortable sharing their story. Your advocates don’t need to know every intricacy of policy, but sharing on-the-ground impact of the implications of those policies is particularly effective. To do this, they need help understanding what makes a compelling story and how to tie that in to policy asks.
Additionally, the best fly-ins don’t wait until the advocates are in Washington or state capitals to make their case. They share issue updates throughout the year, provide ongoing advocate training opportunities in the down time and share success stories of advocates who have built relationships with legislators. Taking it to the next level, advocates can also learn at their fly-in how to continue building those relationships when they go back home.
Look to the future and engage young professionals
Many organizations are looking at ways to engage the next generation of leaders in advocacy. They are finding that many young professionals have complicated feelings on the role or point of grassroots engagement and the role of their organization in government affairs, as well as skepticism about the impact they can make in the process. Innovative organizations sponsor young professionals to come to their events to learn more about the process early. Some invite special speakers to talk with this group or provide them with unique networking or sightseeing opportunities to get them excited. They also give them access to senior leaders in the organization to show the value of their time spent on advocacy. Thinking ahead about who your advocates will be in five or 10 years and building those relationships now can create greater support of advocacy and government relations efforts down the road.
Making the event about more than the meetings
A fly-in brings together key influential in your industry or organization. It creates energy and often occurs when there is momentum on an issue. Are you harnessing that momentum? Leveraging the opportunity is key to getting more ROI from your event. To accomplish this, you might:
- Conduct media interviews and a media outreach campaign during your fly-in to create an “echo chamber” for your issues.
- Use social media to engage advocates not in DC to push your issues.
- Train advocates on year-round advocacy and recruit your most successful meeting attendees as ambassadors.
- Promote your PAC through create events and recognition (more than half of associations and nearly 90 percent of corporations hold a PAC event at their fly-in).
Find ways to use your conference to advance your policy priorities but also to build more educated, savvy and engaged advocates throughout the organization.