New Survey Results Offer Strategy Insights For Advocates

Washington Monthly editor Art Levine observes that the District’s safety net organizations are “mostly under-funded, poorly organized and lack media savvy” — this as a partial explanation for the spending cuts and related policy changes the DC Council seemed ready to approve.

I think Levine’s basically right about the limits of our hometown advocacy campaigns, though organization seems to be getting better. Something similar could probably be said about many safety net campaigns in cities across the country.

But, journalist that Levine is, he may be overestimating the difference “media savvy” could make — and discounting the effectiveness of some strategies that even a savvy PR specialist would find challenging to pitch.

It’s certainly true that our major media have been much more preoccupied with bickering among Councilmembers over the Mayor Gray’s proposed tax increases — even more preoccupied with the ins-and-outs of potential malfeasance.

But it’s questionable whether more and better reporting on the proposed safety net cuts would have made much difference. Many reasons for this.

One is suggested by a fascinating new report on which strategies Congressional staff think would have a significant influence when their bosses hadn’t already made a firm decision on an issue.

For strategies directed to Capitol Hill offices — the most comparable to the offices Councilmembers occupy in the Wilson building — news editorial endorsements ranked eighth among the twelve options that staff surveyed were asked about.

Only 10% of them thought editorial endorsements would make “a lot of positive difference.”

Seems reasonable to assume that straight news coverage would make less — though it could, of course, build support among the dwindling number of people who still follow what can properly be characterized as news.

But support means nothing unless it’s acted on. And here’s where some of the other survey results are enlightening.

Top of the effective strategies list were in-person visits from constituents, followed by contacts from constituents who represent other constituents. Well over 90% of survey respondents endorsed both — and 46% put the former in the very influential category.

Individualized letters and e-mails came in next, followed by phone calls. Form letters and e-mails ranked much lower. And only 1% of respondents thought they would make a big difference.

Same 1% for comments on social media sites. Not good news for us bloggers and tweeters.

Respondents were also asked which strategies they thought were important for understanding constituents’ views.

Again, in-person strategies — attending events and town hall meetings — ranked very high. So did personalized messages, whether conveyed via snail mail, e-mail, telephone or fax.

Identical communications ranked lower and were considered very important by only 4%.

Now, the U.S. Congress isn’t the DC Council and its counterparts. We’d be in even worse straits if it were. But that doesn’t mean the survey findings are irrelevant to local advocacy campaigns.

To my mind, in fact, they may be more relevant than to large national campaigns. Because local organizations have much more limited resources. Investments in strategies with a low return can mean little or no investments in the high pay-offs.

Perhaps advocacy organizations at all levels could use the survey findings as a strategy screen. At the very least, the findings seem to me a call to assess strategies that are routinely used just because they’re part of the repertoire.

What do you think?


4 Responses to New Survey Results Offer Strategy Insights For Advocates

  1. Kathryn, this is a great and challenging post with points that need to be carefully considered by advocates and organizers and so on.

    That said, if we are going to try to address the challenge you pose, we have to understand the survey data to be one-dimensional.

    For instance, a lot of it confirms what I’ve long suspected about the meaninglessness of mainstream media coverage. but we also have seen (if rarely) that an individual story can have an effect when it has the potential to alter the ongoing narrative in a way that feels threatening to a politician. (See the reportage on the terrible DC General conditions, for instance.)

    The survey also totally dismisses the value of form emails to representatives, which is a super-important check for those of us who send email blasts for a living. But the 3,000 emails sent in one day against yoga taxes were blasted form emails too — and their sheer volume and hysteria became a big story that may have had budget-debate ramifications beyond the non-issue of yoga taxes.

    On still another hand, despite the fact that constituent office visits are rated highest in this survey, we know that they too are pretty much futile if the targeted representative just doesn’t want to do what they’re asking her to do.

    Here’s, I think, what the staffers surveyed here might point out if they were in conversation and not Q+A mode: politicians are storytellers. In the story they’re telling, they’re only going to take a different action than the one they originally set out for themselves if the bigger story changes around them. Moral suasion won’t do it; lunchtime office visits of a handful of constituents won’t do it; even “direct action” won’t do it, if that action doesn’t tell a story that they feel forced to participate in. (In other words, “Activists demonstrate against budget cuts” is actually a part of their narrative — and usually not a hazardous one.)

    We do have the tools to (occasionally) change the narrative. The “high pay-off” that you wonder about comes when we learn new and disruptive ways to use those tools, probably to inject new and disruptive characters (so to speak) into the story.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    I agree with much of what you say here, Greg, though I don’t embrace the view that mainstream media are generally meaningless. Good coverage of an issue should have a place in an advocacy strategy. It’s up to advocates to interest and educate the reporters and editors who can make a difference.

    That said, I’d like to point out that you’re focusing on only one of a number of situations, i.e., cases where a policymaker has already decided to do the wrong thing. In many cases, advocates are seeking to get an issue on the legislative or regulatory agenda–in others, to get policymakers to make up their minds the right way.

    Being “disruptive” may sometimes be effective. But it can easily backfire. People who feel threatened tend to dig in their heels. More importantly, I think it’s important to remember that you risk foreclosing future opportunities to engage the policymaker. Relatively few will always and inevitably be hostile to everything you want.

  3. Kathryn, inasmuch that what “we” want is effective government action to reduce poverty, then yes — it’s usually going to come at some kind of real or projected expense of capital, and — if only because of the way campaign finance works — we have to assume that politicians are by default going to serve the interests of capital.

    This should not be an outlandish assumption, especially for someone who so carefully considers the gap between good smart policy and what we actually have.

    So I’m confused by your response, which seems to backtrack from what was initially a clear-eyed assessment of the ineffectiveness of traditional ‘the truth will set us free’ advocacy. I hope you aren’t going out of your way to distance yourself from the notion of disruptive tactics — after all, i don;t think traditional direct action is always effective either. Disruption can take many forms! But I think you’ll find that some form of disruption is necessary to change the course of things, which is generally toward the consolidation of wealth and privilege. Disruption of the political narrative, by way of new voices publicly saying things that previously just weren’t heard.

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    I’m not backtracking from what I initially said. I don’t think “the truth will set us free” is realistic. Also don’t believe that advocates have traditionally thought so. Like you, I think the country is trending toward a high concentration of wealth at the upper end of the income scale. All the data I’ve seen confirm this. But merely to mention the data is to suggest that change will not depend entirely on “new voices.”

    Finally, I’m hesitant to lump all politicians into one bucket. If you’ll look at the spectrum, you’ll see that many aren’t serving “the interests of capital,” assuming by that you mean big businesses and very wealthy individuals.

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