Tallahassee is one of the most politically dynamic cities in the world and Florida’s state capital has some of the most powerful and influential lobbying professionals in the nation. In order to maintain that high level of influence, a growing number of public affairs professionals are employing grassroots public relations to impact the legislative process. This is a smart move, because the higher the political stakes, the more legislators want their constituents informed and educated on the issues. This is particularly true during an election year, which the 2014 legislative session will have an impact.
Constituent influence became very apparent during the 2013 legislative session. An influential senator posed a question to several high-powered lobbyists representing business interests. The question the senator posed, “The fact that you’re talking about this issue means it’s important to Florida’s economic prosperity, so you have my full attention, but why is it that I haven’t heard from one business owner in my district calling me on this statewide crisis?!”
Whereupon, several other senators echoed the same sentiment. As it would turn out, the question would linger and eventually haunt the proposal until it died in committee.
The legislators’ question is the byproduct of not using public relations effectively in building bridges between lobbying, legislating and serving the best interests of Floridians. Public relations secures precious political capital outside the capitol leading to legislative efficacy in the heat of debate.
These 5 public relations tips will elevate any legislative strategy and optimize the odds for legislative success:
- Messaging: An effective public relations effort begins by developing messages that resonate, educate and motivate (REM) key audiences. Corporate messages are often too unilateral for public consumption. Public relations through qualitative and quantitative research can recalibrate corporate messages to underwrite narratives that appeal to the concerns of consumers and voters i.e. cost of living, quality of life and equality of opportunity. Moreover, savvy message development can lead to bilateral opportunities to recruit partners and allies who will join the chorus of advocacy.
- Coalitions: Coalitions can span from an informal network of allies to a formalized organization representing a cross-section of trade associations, corporations and thought leaders. In order for coalitions to influence the legislative process, they must have two key components: 1). Coalitions championing the interests of concerned citizens who reside in home districts of key legislators. These citizens are often active members of local chapters of statewide trades. These citizens are typically thought leaders and active in local politics. Warning: If a coalition is in name only vis-à-vis just a corporation behind the curtain, then it will be seen as Astroturf and have little influence on the process. 2). Internal communications is as important as external. It’s crucial to keep coalition partners singing off the same page. Themes, core messages and supporting facts underwrite both internal buy-in/compliance and external communications. Moreover, coalition partners must be kept updated in real time, especially, during legislative session: Votes can change hours, sometimes minutes before a roll is called.
- Grassroots/Grasstops: Often cited, but mostly avoided, grassroots campaigns operate outside the convenience of the capitol press corps. It requires identifying, recruiting and mobilizing citizens to communicate with their elected officials ranging from mayor to governor and legislator to Congresswoman. Grasstops is a more sophisticated operation engaging thought leaders who are pillars in their communities and who influence the opinions of neighbors, employees and voters, but most importantly, elected officials. The goal of these operations are to encourage citizens to call, write and intercept their elected officials to advocate for a particular issue. Grassroots operations effectively affirms what lobbyists are saying inside the capitol. It creates credibility and mitigates the concerns of legislators who listen for their constituents.
- Online Sources: In Florida, there are few bloggers and online news sources that stakeholders rely upon to get the news and political information. If your issue isn’t mentioned or reported by them (assuming you’re not trying to stay under the radar), then it won’t sway decision makers at the capitol. SaintPetersBlog, Sayfie Review, News Service of Florida, Florida Current and Sunshine State News play a role in extending news coverage and influencing perceptions. News organizations such as the AP, Tampa Bay Times, Herald, Tribune and Sentinel et. al. still have influence and should be factored into any public relations strategy. However, bloggers and online news services compress the 24-hour news cycle into real-time information. You cannot have a social media or digital communications strategy without factoring in these channels.
- Guest Columns: The significance of a well written, well timed and well placed guest column cannot be overstated. I’ve literally placed guest columns that would hours later change a swing vote on a legislative committee. If your PR budget is skinny, then a guest column can be a great ROI. Generally, it takes a 500-700 word guest column anywhere from 3 to 10 days to be published in a newspaper. However, a new and exciting site called Context Florida can get your guest column published within days, maybe even hours, depending on the author and how hot the issue is at the time. This site is quickly becoming the next go-to source of information for key influencers across Florida. Once you have your guest column published online, then you and your allies can use your social media to generate statewide buzz that will influence key votes in any committee.
Bonus: Timing is also a key component in designing and rolling out your public relations initiatives. Oddly, public relations finds itself in a paradox when it comes to timing. Many interests wait to see what the legislators will do during committee weeks, while the legislators are looking at media coverage reporting on polls or editorials. It’s during this timeframe that many impressions are made going into the next session.
The rule of thumb: The higher the profile, the farther out you should prepare your communications strategies. In Florida, legislative session begins in early March. This creates a log jam of communications during the months of January and February, where a large number of campaigns are competing for exposure in the media ranging from ed boards to talk radio to online advertising.
This scramble to break through the noise becomes costly and limited. In order to capture the strategic high ground, it’s ideal to build a communications and grassroots platform that’s working in concert with the committee schedule, which is in the Fall. Then over the holiday season, you can recalibrate your communications strategies and tactics going into the first quarter with a stronger posture.
Contract and association lobbyists who factor in public relations as an element in their legislative strategies give their clients/members a crucial edge in advancing their agendas. More importantly, they are ensuring the public is not only being educated, but given a voice in our democratic process.
For a confidential, free initial consultation on your public relations opportunities, contact me, Patrick Slevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 850.597.0423. Be sure to sign up for future blog posts.