Digital Advocacy Leaps Forward During Pandemic Lockdown

22 Apr, 2021


Digital Advocacy Leaps Forward During Pandemic Lockdown

April 2021

For waiters, bartenders, chefs and all the other people who make it pleasant for us to go out to eat, March 2020 was a terrifying time. For restaurant owners, who don’t work for tips or by the hour, it was scary in a different way. Within a week or two, almost all indoor dining suddenly ceased.

For the staff at the National Restaurant Association, it was a time to respond. “We had to hustle,” says Mike Whatley, the association’s vice president for state affairs and grassroots advocacy, “as states were shutting down indoor dining due to the pandemic, we worked with our state associations to ensure that in every state there would still be takeout, delivery and drive-through options — even though there would be nothing ‘on premises.’ We had to make sure our members and the people who work for them could continue to operate, even in a limited way. ”

But this isn’t a story about how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our daily lives, though it has done just that. Instead, it’s about how those responsible for digital advocacy efforts have had to step up, and how the pivot from in-person to virtual campaigns has in fact opened up new and more effective ways of advocacy. What looked at first like a bad horror movie, though it still has its worrisome aspects, has actually created new opportunities.

There’s No Going Back

“We’ll never go back to the way we did things before,” says Nick DeSarno, the Council’s director of digital and policy communications. “We’ve had to learn to do things differently, and as a result — difficult as it has been — we’ll be more effective. What public affairs professionals have discovered is that digital advocacy is not just a tool called upon by lobbyists who are looking to check a box. It is a fundamental part of any government relations strategy, and it can bring policymakers to the table.

“Digital advocacy is not something that can just be turned on whenever you need it,” according to DeSarno. “Organizations that were already leaning into digital are seeing huge gains and advantages in this new era of government affairs and advocacy.”

Here’s one indicator of progress: The National Restaurant Association’s digital database is now four times larger than it had been before the shift occurred. “Using digital advocacy, we managed to activate far more advocates than we ever could have using the older, face-to-face methods that most of us assumed was the way our work was done,” Whatley says.

And it all happened very quickly. As states shutdown indoor dining nationwide, Whatley says his organization launched a nationwide action alert, urging Congress to help restaurants with recovery aid. The response from members of the association surprised even his team. That in itself was a sign that doing things differently presented new possibilities and not just a grudging accommodation to a passing problem.

‘Like a Snowstorm’

“Part of the way we tracked our progress was through a digital electronic map of the United States,” Whatley says. “You know how you can push pins into a map to mark when and where something took place? This was like that, except it was digital. So whenever one of our advocates took action — when a member in Peoria, Ill., wrote to their member of Congress, for instance — a pin would be dropped on that advocate’s geographical location in Peoria. Usually, when we use one of those maps and there is some action being taken, we’d see pins drop here and there. But this time it was like a snowstorm with the pins dropping all over the map.”

What was especially encouraging was that the actions weren’t just coming from association members. “Customers were emailing Congress, too,” Whatley recalls. “They were worried about their favorite place to eat.” Over 400,000 emails were sent to Congress during the initial campaign, and by design they weren’t just identical letters requiring nothing more than someone hitting the send button. “The rap on emails is that they’re just form letters,” according to Whatley. “But this time we had it built into the system that to send the email, you had to actually write your story, to personalize it with a lot more than your signature.”

Whatley and his team could not read all the emails, obviously. “But we read many of them and some were heartbreaking,” he says. “They were very compelling, and right away we were hearing from our federal lobbyists in Washington that because of our efforts, members of Congress were hearing from our members loud and clear. So not only was it high volume — it was also highly personal, and that makes a big difference.”

A Shift in Strategy

“This shift toward virtual advocacy is real and might be permanent,” DeSarno says. “Our profession is going to be grappling with virtual legislative meetings, online legislative briefings, and rethinking its in-person grassroots tactics for a hybrid world.”

Michael Sistak, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s director of grassroots program development, reports similar progress from his association’s efforts. “We’re here to assist our members, meaning those in our state organizations, when they do their fly-ins and conferences and activities like that,” Sistak says. “So we had to shift pretty much on the spot to what we can do to support them without them having to leave their homes — and without their leaving their states — with virtual meetings and all that. And that has opened up new possibilities we had not anticipated.”

Much of what AFBF encourages is relationship-building, “and it doesn’t have to be face-to-face and person-to-person for that to continue,” Sistak says. “And it doesn’t just have to take place at a fly-in or conference in Washington, D.C. The riots at the Capitol and beefed-up security have meant that an in-person meeting with a member of Congress is next to impossible these days, anyway. So we encourage our members to have virtual meetings whenever possible, and we train them to do that.”

Opportunities for Engagement

And in such settings, digital advocacy opens up possibilities for engagement, even if they might seem small at the time. “We like members of Congress to take farm tours or ranch tours, and of course, that is harder now than it was before the pandemic,” says Sistak, who has written on the subject for The State, an online publication for AFBF members. Whether face-to-face or virtual, a frequent frustration experienced by planners of such events, as Sistak writes, “is the time and effort put into a tour only to have a legislator leave early or cancel altogether.”

One way to safeguard against such a lost opportunity is for members “to record phone-shot farm tours of no more than five minutes, upload them to YouTube for free, and leave the link with legislators and staff as a digital leave-behind,” Sistak writes. This way, “the legislator and his or her staff can view the farm tour at their convenience,” and something they will want to see in person when that again becomes doable. “The video can serve as a visual to emphasize an issue being discussed and help to further build the relationship between legislator and constituent.” The idea is applicable, of course, to factory tours or any other comparable event.

Screen Fatigue

None of this is to suggest that people aren’t eager to return to person-to-person efforts, or that so-called screen fatigue is not a reality. Because farms and ranches are, by their very nature, outdoors, Sistak says that on-site events, handled responsibly, are still possible. “I don’t think as human beings we are wired to operate [in a completely virtual world], and I am aware that most of us are suffering from some weariness with Zoom meetings. Our members are itching to get back to Capitol Hill, and I understand that. We watch the vaccination numbers and we tell them that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Whatley agrees that screen fatigue is real. “One week there were several developments on Capitol Hill that we needed to keep our advocates informed about, so we sent out our alerts,” he says. “And when we did, we noticed our engagement drop a bit. So we’ve had to figure out how to sequence things to keep people from getting tired. Now we try to do no more than two emails a week, because if we do three, engagement drops. We’d rather do one really impactful email than two that get some attention and three where we see the interest lag.”

That’s another lesson. The digital advocacy techniques that have been adopted and mastered over the past year will remain in the toolkit, no matter what else the future holds.

“Our advocates have sent more than 900,000 emails to Congress during the pandemic, and another 100,000 or so to state legislators, and a lot of those are from people who have never taken action before,” Whatley says.

Keeping Advocates Engaged

Now he says the challenge “is to keep everyone engaged. “It’s one thing to get activated during an obvious crisis,” says Whatley. “When the lockdown first occurred, because people weren’t working, they had more time to think about politics and take action.” But it is another thing to keep them motivated when things get “back to normal,” whatever that looks like and whenever that happens. “Now that things are opening up a bit, our members are tending to business again, and that leaves less time for them to think about politics and less energy to do much about it.”

One way the National Restaurant Association is keeping its members charged up is through weekly video updates emailed to them. “These updates, from Sean Kennedy, our executive VP for public affairs, are targeted specifically to what is going on in the restaurant industry,” Whatley says. “They are only 90 seconds long. They’re laser-focused, and they’re something tangible that appears in their inbox. They’re reminders that we’re here, working for our members, and what is so encouraging is that our email list for these updates continues to grow.”

Ultimately, what Whatley says he wants people who have become advocates over the past year and have been to a virtual conference, for example, to do “is to go to an in-person conference when those resume. I feel confident we’ll learn how to do that when the opportunity arises, which is why this is such an exciting, if trying, time to be in this line of work.”

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