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?