Tips for Harnessing the Power of Grassroots Advocacy

“When I feel the heat, I see the light.” This famous quip by the late Senator Everett Dirksen is a potent reminder that there’s nothing quite like pressure from constituents back home to help influence a political decision.

Websites, email, smartphones, tablets and social media have changed the ways that industries and causes rally their supporters. But grassroots advocacy is as important as ever. That’s why organizing and unleashing a large group of passionate, articulate advocates is still a critical element for most winning communications campaigns.

Stratacomm saw this lesson in action again while working with our long-time client – the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) – to defeat a proposed ban on winter-time wood burning in Salt Lake City and six surrounding counties. Once Utah’s governor announced this sweeping proposal, which would have outlawed even low-emission woodstoves certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state’s regulatory process left little time to spare. The air quality board hand-picked by the governor indicated it would make a decision within 90 days after a series of public hearings.

Our client’s success depended on quickly mobilizing grassroots support for a more reasonable alternative. Elsewhere on our website, you’ll find a case study detailing how Stratacomm approached this challenge. But in a nutshell, the Utahns for Responsible Burning campaign sparked a public outcry that forced regulators to rescind the proposal and prompted lawmakers to overwhelmingly pass legislation supported by HPBA that prevents the state’s air quality board from imposing a similar burning ban in the future.

How might our experience in Utah apply to your campaign? Here are a few tips:

  1. Do your homework: Conducting opinion research and message testing are critical first steps. Done properly, you will be well positioned to develop demographic and psychographic profiles for likely supporters and better understand how to reach them. You will also uncover your side’s weaknesses and the most effective ways to counteract misperceptions. From the survey our team designed and fielded in Utah, we learned that support for the ban was stronger than expected and activating core supporters would be key to turn the tide in HPBA’s favor. Every dollar invested in research to understand the hearts and minds of your key audiences helps ensure that subsequent dollars will make a measurable difference.
  2. Unleash likely supporters: In a political campaign, candidates usually work to solidify their base before turning to other audiences. The same approach works for advocacy campaigns. Stratacomm helped HPBA members in Utah use email and mailing lists to notify their customers of this threat and point them towards online resources. From there, word of mouth began to spread.
  3. Make it easy to get and stay involved: Your website should be an important portal for advocacy, and online reading habits place a premium on clear, concise writing. Optimize online interactions at every stage and make scanning content easy with bullets, hyperlinks and bold text. Lead with a compelling call to action so recipients know immediately why and how they should get involved. The website for Utahns for Responsible Burning became our online hub for grassroots efforts where supporters could follow the issue, learn about the next public meeting, contact the media, send a letter to the governor and show their support.
  4. Get social: Whether you are engaged with social media or not, conversations about your issue are happening there. At the very least, you should be listening. Once you understand the landscape, you will likely want to establish a presence to help shape the conversation. As you build a following, invite your audience to offer their thoughts and create incentives for them to share your content with their personal networks. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Storify were important channels for the Utah campaign, and Facebook ads drove significant traffic to the website.
  5. A picture is still worth 1,000 words: Air quality debates are complicated, and it is easy to be suspicious of industry claims. But seeing a modern wood or pellet stove burning while producing virtually no smoke is believing. HPBA organized nearly a dozen live-burn demonstrations so reporters, government officials and concerned citizens could see that today’s products are clean burning and that the proposed ban would punish those who invested in this technology.

The Public Relations Society of America recently named HPBA and Stratacomm as finalists for the 2016 Silver Anvil awards, which honor the best communications campaigns during the past year. We appreciate the recognition by our peers, but we’re most gratified by helping our clients accomplish their goals. Give us a call for a free consultation and to hear our ideas for turning up the heat on your issue.

Bill Buff is a co-managing partner at Stratacomm who enjoys both the heat and light that comes from a roaring fireplace.

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