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Advocacy Professionals Share Six Key Learnings and Why Virtual Engagement is Here to Stay

by Anne Wainscott-Sargent, FiscalNote

Powerful and applicable lessons on how to tackle advocacy going forward in a post-Covid world.

Virtual engagement

Going digital took on special significance during the global pandemic of 2020, and that was especially true for public policy advocacy professionals who rely heavily on personal connections and networking to achieve their mission and government affairs strategies.

Premium Cigar Association (PCA) Government Affairs Head Joshua Habursky and National Retail Federation (NRF) Grassroots Director Meghan Cruz recently spoke with FiscalNote Advocacy and Public Affairs Managing Director Sherry Whitworth to examine how their organizations persevered and still served members in an unprecedented year (watch). As work and meetings went virtual, Habursky and Cruz embraced new operational models that emphasized responsiveness and grassroots engagement. The results were powerful and applicable to how our industry can tackle government advocacy going forward in a post-Covid world. Here’s what we learned – in their own words.

Lesson #1: Virtual Meeting Formats are Here to Stay 

Habursky: Switching to a virtual format was an opportunity. We had folks that wouldn't otherwise travel to Washington or a state capitol to meet with lawmakers. We were able to produce these virtual forums where, instead of meeting with a legislative assistant or somebody on a specific policy issue, we had higher-level member meetings. Instead of hosting members of Congress and their staff at PCA’s lounge in Union Station, we did a virtual series, Facebook Lives, where we interviewed major manufacturers and retailers and hosted a series of panels. We conducted over 40 interviews and really bolstered our social media following and presence.

What made us successful was creating a constituent services model, much like the Hill has where you have an issue, you can call your Congressional office and they will help guide you. During March and April, we were sending out daily communications to our membership discussing all the COVID packages — not only how this is going to affect you, but also what we're advocating for.

Joshua Habursky, Head of Government Affairs
Premium Cigar Association (PCA)

Cruz: We were able to pivot and find new ways to connect. We have a robust store tour program where we bring lawmakers into stores to show them around and meet retailers. We pivoted that to a virtual platform, which was really successful. We also created virtual programming to engage with our members, including a virtual Town Hall series and a virtual policymaker series, which were invite-only, high-level meetings for C-level members to meet with high-ranking government officials. COVID taught us that we don't have to be chained to one model. With the way that virtual platforms have been built out, members of Congress don't have to be back in their districts to visit a retailer anymore. If they have 30 minutes, they can hop on a call from their office or from anywhere that they are to meet with our folks. As much as I miss in-person events, I think COVID has given us more flexibility with how we work, and we can really continue to capitalize on that.

Lesson #2: Responsiveness Matters

Habursky: We really had to sell advocacy as a key member benefit. That meant demonstrating value, showcasing our victories, and responding in real-time to the concerns of the membership.

Cruz: With the forced closures and essential versus non-essential retail workers, our industry turned to us for guidance. We put out daily COVID-19 updates. We launched a program called Operation Open Doors, which was retail’s pathway to reopening. It was this great sharing network that we created; over 150 companies joined this weekly call to talk about what they were doing for reopening. We broke down committees like logistics, health and safety, and several other working groups to just share information on how retailers can all work together to be part of the solution to keep employees and customers safe.

Lesson #3: Make the Most of Your Advocate Network in a Tight Funding Environment

Habursky: We had consolidation cuts and staff reductions so our volunteer leadership had to fulfill those obligations that would have otherwise typically been done by staff alone. We also repurposed all our lobbyists to have a grassroots function. We had to tap our board of directors to do a lot over the course of the pandemic to fill the void, especially at the state level. Toward the latter part of 2020 and into this year, budgets were a huge concern. We needed to come up with a comprehensive offensive strategy on how to fight back against tax increases for our membership and our products. That was something that we started last year, knowing that it was going to be a challenge, especially in the states and localities, and we were able to fight back on a lot of tax increases.

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Cruz: I’ve definitely relied on resources from our colleagues in the industry. Engagement is our number one priority, and so I feel that it's been a lot easier to demonstrate the value of advocacy at the board level because it is such a high priority for our internal leadership. Fortunately, we had 78 percent of new advocates come in through our VoterVoice action center last year, which was incredible. Throughout that process, when we were getting a lot of new advocates, we were collecting a lot of data, asking folks what issues were important to them, and capturing that data through VoterVoice. We've been communicating and keeping them in the loop with opportunities for webinars and events. I'm also reaching out to folks individually to get to know them based on their responses to some of these calls to action over the last year — turning over new stones of people who can join our network and grow grassroots advocates who wrote their member of Congress once into being real champions for retail.

Lesson #4: Personal Connections Count

Habursky: Last year I did 70 member visits and I plan on doing 100 visits to retailers in our membership this year. I've also empowered all our government affairs team to take part and visit a cigar shop, whether they're a member or non-member, tell them what's going on, and provide some follow-up. How can they get involved in the organization?

Lesson #5: The Right Way to Enlist Influencers for Grassroots Engagement 

Cruz: Matt Shay, our CEO, is a great ambassador with our board to share the value of grassroots activities. From working in other organizations, I know it can be difficult to demonstrate the value of grassroots if your top leadership is not super bought into it. When we were pushing for COVID-19 relief back in March, I put together a call script, pulled a list of Chiefs of Staff for our board to call, and had C-level executives call. I got some high-level folks to join our grassroots network, which was exciting.

Habursky: When it comes to working with celebrities and high-profile executives, be calculated and reserved – you can't use that tactic every single time. The ask sheet could be fundraising; it could be advocacy. It’s really about working with the other components of the organization and our priorities to make calculated asks. You don't want to throw everything at one issue and the next day ask for the same thing for another issue. 

Also, with celebrity engagement, there’s a little bit of risk if they’re going to speak publicly on an issue that the media will engage with. If this person tweets an action alert link out, and then suddenly, People Magazine asks them a question about it and they have no idea what it means, it could become a problematic issue, rather than a help, to our overall efforts.

Our members have seen throughout the pandemic that when our industry needed us, we can all work together and be a strong voice for change and to stand up for our industry. The pandemic really helped demonstrate that value to our members.

Meghan Cruz, Grassroots Director
National Retail Federation (NRF)

Lesson #6: Let’s Get Social – The Rise of New Tech-Driven Communication Platforms 

Cruz: We push out our messaging on social media and have a good following on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We also use traditional email for call to actions. For finding new folks, it’s about communicating the value and making your voice heard to people who would share out the alerts more broadly. We found personalizing the email subject line or just keeping it to three words or less works well. There is a tool that my marketing team turned me on to called subjectline.com. You put your subject line into the website, and it will tell you the strength of your subject line for marketing tactics.

Habursky: We saw the emergence of a lot of new trade press, whether it's podcasts or Facebook interviews. Even outside of our organization, there's new communication panels being created within our industry. I've done dozens of interviews about the cigar industry and Covid, and what's going on in Washington. And these are platforms that were created in 2020 and 2021. That's been helpful as a new communications mechanism that is relationship-driven.

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