Making Change Happen: Building a Successful Advocacy Campaign

Posted on January 22, 2014

Making Change Happen:   Building a Successful Advocacy Campaign


Seeking to influence change, especially through the legislative process, is both complex and time-consuming. Advocacy campaigns are extremely effective in driving change by generating broader awareness and motivating grassroots support.  However, if there is not a solid plan of action to maintain focus, the campaign can become unwieldy and ineffective.

In building an advocacy plan, there are several strategies to keep in mind.

1)      Determine your specific mission and establish milestones. Campaigns are often doomed from the beginning because the outcome is not specific and the mission is not well-defined.  This leads to complex messages, ineffective implementation and confusion.  So to be successful, keep it short and sweet – and put in place specific milestones and metrics so you are able to effectively measure your impact, gauge your direction and adjust your course if necessary.   

2)      Get your facts straight. Quality research is essential – and influential.  Pure emotion can work wonders, but will quickly fade if you are not able to substantiate and document a need for change.  PolitiFact’s Pulitzer Prize winning Truth-O-Meter is indicative of the media’s commitment to verification.  If your claims are declared “mostly false,” you can quickly lose ground.   

3)      Know thine enemy. Or in this case, know who is against you, what they are saying, how they are saying it and to whom.  Continuously monitor media and social media to ensure you are aware of what you may be up against – and be able to proactively head off opposing factors. 

4)      Write it down. Develop simple, issue-based talking points – and share them with your grassroots supporters to ensure consistency in message. These should be simple and tailored to the audiences you are trying to persuade. Citizens, policymakers and the media want to be able to quickly review, comprehend and take a position. This is one of the reasons why social media has changed the way organizations approach advocacy. Learning how to integrate evolving social media channels – such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn – has become a vital component behind winning campaigns. 

5)      Develop a call-to-action.  To be effective, your audiences need to have a specific “next step.”  Whether it’s to call their legislator, make a donation, attend a rally or other action, it’s important to make sure your advocates and allies are marching in the same direction. This next step may change based upon milestones, but is an essential component to building and sustaining energy. 

6)      Coach and prepare your primary spokespeople. This not only helps with media interviews, but ensures those speaking on behalf of your cause can accurately present it, respond to questions and refute misinformation. When doing so, always think about the questions you “don’t want to be asked,” and develop responses – as well as those you “do want to be asked,” and develop responses to those as well. This way, there is less likelihood of being caught off guard in a conversation with an elected official, presentation to an allied organization or a media interview. 

7)      Build alliances. The more individuals or organizations you can rally to your cause, the better the chance of success. Understanding how to build, educate, mobilize, and nurture grassroots supporters is perhaps the most important aspect of an issue-based advocacy campaign. As you find supporters, develop a database and maintain constant communication with periodic calls-to-action and updates. Both your high-level “grasstops” advocates, as well as your lower-level “grassroots” supporters should feel included in your campaign’s progress and challenges. Try developing a hyper-local outreach initiative that utilizes advocates to reach out to legislators in their home districts – remember the best way to get an elected official’s attention is by getting the attention of his or her constituents.  

8)      Communication strategy. Once you have defined your objectives, identified your factual arguments, developed your message and materials, and built an alliance, the next step is to determine the most effective communication channels. Even in our rapidly evolving digital world, it is vital that you deploy a plan of action that will influence the right people at the right time – whether it’s an air-cover campaign or under-the-radar initiative. If your primary supporters are young professionals, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter might be your best options to communicate with them. On the other hand, if your audience includes those who are less-wired  – optimizing traditional media channels through letters-to-the-editor, opinion pieces, or bylined articles might be the most feasible approaches.         

9)      Focus on timing. In politics and advocacy, timing is everything. Knowing when to launch a campaign can give you a tactical edge over your opponents. Whether you use a specific moment-in-time, press conference or event – plan and execute to generate awareness and widen your base of supporters.  But always keep in mind what’s going on in the news, what issues are being covered by the media and what is capturing people’s attention.  If there is a major incident, such as the terrorist bombing in Boston, hold off on your launch if possible. This way, your message and cause don’t get lost in competing news events. 

 10)   Keep the momentum moving.  Even the best laid plan can go awry if you don’t constantly measure your movement, adjust your approach according to milestones – and most importantly, nurture your advocates and audiences.  If an organization doesn’t maintain enthusiasm for a cause – neither will your advocacy base or the audiences you are seeking to influence. 

Most importantly, building and executing an advocacy campaign takes time – in most cases change doesn’t happen overnight.  But by establishing a plan of action, laying the foundation, building momentum and constantly nurturing your cause – change will happen.

Take a look at the initiative that brought the Bald Eagle back from extinction.  In the 1960s, there were only slightly more than 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.  But due to more than 40 years of vast advocacy initiatives and sweeping legislation, at last count there were more than 9,700 breeding pairs.  That’s not chump change.


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