Breaking Through: Keys To Effective Advocacy

Breaking Through: Keys To Effective Advocacy

Breaking Through: Keys To Effective Advocacy
November 21, 2014

“A lot of folks tweeting on a subject can suddenly launch a revolution in parts of the world, but if you’re trying to change policy at the state and local level, it’s about more than just having a hashtag,” said Evan Stavisky, a partner at The Parkside Group, kicking off City & State’s “Art of Advocacy” event.

In two panel discussions leading media and non-profit strategists then went on to explain exactly how, in a digital age, such advocacy campaigns play out.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Michael Woloz, a principal at Connelly, McLaughlin & Woloz, on new digital technologies that hold as much promise as peril and are as fast moving as they are unforgiving.

While in the past the media landscape was dominated by just a handful of outlets, Woloz told the audience that advocacy campaigns are now more exciting. “There are so many interesting, creative ways,” he said, “to get your message out through third parties.”

Just as the panelists agreed that social media has become essential to advocacy, they repeatedly stressed the importance of assembling the right team to manage it.

“People can blast this stuff out ad nauseam,” Antonio Ortolani, director of Brunswick Group, said. “If you are going to say something, make sure it has impact.”

It was noted several times, throughout the discussion, that digital platforms now provide hard data where guesswork had previously been employed.

While strategists will often analyze data to single out who the wielders of real influence are, Ortolani pointed out that sometimes the key is actually to zero in on that small fish whose ideas influence a big fish—and who, in many cases, is easier to reach. In that way it’s possible, he said, to get your “viewpoint rerouted through a third party.”

There are other instances, however, in which data is better deployed in identifying the ordinary Internet users who are most engaged with a particular issue to build a constituency, said Evan Stavisky, that can be returned to again and again.

In the event’s second panel, Power of Non-profits, the emphasis shifted from the power of digital data to that of the human touch.

“I am more a believer in back to the basics, no-frills campaigns,” said Taryn Duffy, director of public affairs at Empire City Casino and principal at TSD Strategies.

During her fifteen years working for lawmakers in Albany, Duffy observed that the most successful non-profit advocates were “very in tune with the decision-maker they were sitting in front of, and came up with ways to personalize [their pitch] and get them invested.”

According to Duffy, they would ask: “How do you run that program in their district? How do you service the constituents for that elected?”

Dr. William Weisberg, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Children’s Aid Society, recalled early career setbacks in dealing with elected officials, when he would ask himself questions like: “How could they not support after-school [programs] for children?”

As time passed, Weisberg came to understand the importance of establishing a feedback loop. It’s essential to ask, he said, “What is favorable for them? What support do they need?”

According to Duffy, elected officials appreciate the role of non-profits, and genuinely want to help out, but she also conceded that no matter how brilliant your strategy, there is never a guarantee of success.

“This is politics,” she said, “and unfortunately decisions are made as much on politics as they are on the merits of the issue—and it’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.”

Gabe Ponce de León