Ten Simple Rules for Policy Advocates

Posted on January 19, 2017

Dear lawmakers—We are creating new resources for advocates at the state and local levels. We’d appreciate your suggestions for improving our advice. PLEASE send any edits or additions to leadership@publicleadershipinstitute.org. Thanks!

State and local policy advocates should:

#1 Work closely with bill sponsors before the legislation is finalized.

All too often, policy advocates try to make every decision about proposed legislation, only contacting bill sponsors when everything seems finalized. But that wastes the expertise of friendly lawmakers. Is the bill politically feasible? How will legislative leaders react? Is it crafted to be assigned to the right committee? Legislators are the best source for legislative strategy.

#2 Allow enough time to collect cosponsors.

Too often, advocates create legislation at the last minute, they find a chief sponsor, and then the bill is hurriedly introduced. Instead, advocates should spend plenty of time recruiting as many cosponsors as possible. The process of building cosponsors allows advocates to educate friends and encourage many to take some ownership of the project. In a blue jurisdiction, it is possible to introduce a bill with a majority of the relevant committee or of the whole legislative body as cosponsors.

#3 Work with lawmakers on media.

It is always a challenge to make the media understand the newsworthiness of your policy campaign. Any earned media event is more newsworthy when you include elected officials.. Besides, the lawmakers appreciate any opportunity to get in the press. Similarly, when you want to place an op-ed or letter to the editor, you have a better chance if it is coauthored by an elected official.

#4 Identify and prioritize persuadable lawmakers.

In any political battle, some are with you, some are against, and some can swing either way. Identify every lawmaker on a 1-to-5 scale where 1 is totally for you and 5 is totally against. Advocacy should be overwhelmingly targeted at moving 3s to 2s and 2s to 1s. Don’t generalize about the people you’re trying to persuade, understand what is important to each of them as individuals and address that. Throughout the campaign, make sure everyone reports their contacts with lawmakers, especially if it affects their standing on the 1-to-5 scale.

#5 Equip advocates—including sponsors—with well-framed but short messages.

When you try to persuade, you have to grab your listeners’ interest right away or you’ve lost them. Prepare a well-practiced one or two sentence explanation of your policy and start with that. Never make more than your three best points in support of an argument. If the lawmaker wants to hear more, s/he will ask you questions. Don’t overstay your welcome.

#6 Make effective rather than ineffective contacts with persuadable lawmakers.

There are lots of ways to communicate with a lawmaker. Here’s a list from most to least effective: (1) A personal exchange in front of people who the lawmaker likes or needs, like at a civic association meeting or town hall. (2) A personal meeting but not in front of constituents or other people important to the lawmaker. (3) A letter or call from some person or group particularly important to the lawmaker. (4) Personalized mail from a constituent. (5) A personal phone call from a constituent. (6) A paper petition with names and addresses showing that they are constituents. (7) Individual contacts from people who are not clearly important or constituents. (8) A general or online petition. Is your campaign focusing on the most- or least-effective contacts?

#7 Bring with you a constituent, a sympathetic victim, or an expert to meet lawmakers.

Advocates are a dime a dozen. Whenever possible, bring along someone who is a particularly persuasive messenger, someone who the lawmaker already respects or has obvious personal credibility on the issue.

#8 Carry any materials that lawmakers might need to be persuaded.

Always have a copy of the bill and any relevant amendments. Always have copies of materials that prove your point such as short reports from experts, a list of the groups and influential people who support your bill, and any relevant polling results.

#9 End any meeting with clarity.

After expending all that energy to schedule and hold a meeting with a lawmaker, you don’t want to end with a misunderstanding. End by restating a legislator’s position in order to make sure you fully understand. For example, “So you’ve heard from the AFL-CIO and you have agreed to support SB 123 to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. Have I got that right?” If the legislator is against you, stay upbeat and say maybe next time; say thank you no matter what. Remember you’re going to lobby him/her again!

#10 After the vote(s), thank and reward your allies.

Win or lose, make sure legislators are glad they sided with you in this battle. You will need them next time as well. Praise them in letters to your own organization and in Letters to the Editor. Write flattering notes that legislators can quote. Give out “Legislator of the Year” awards. Make sure your organization’s members publicly thank lawmakers at events. They deserve it.