Public Relations Tactics

Cause and effect: 8 ways to harness the power of grassroots advocacy

September 4, 2012

“When I feel the heat, I see the light.”

This famous quip by the late Senator Everett Dirksen remains a powerful reminder that there is nothing like pressure from constituents back home when it comes to influencing a lawmaker. Grassroots advocacy has long been a major impetus for social and legislative change.

Understanding the important role that advocates play in shaping policy, promoting ideas and expanding the influence of organizations is key to being able to harness the power of advocacy to achieve legislative, regulatory and reputational victories.

Today, digital tools are exponentially increasing the energy and reach of citizen participation in government.

Communications professionals have more ways than ever to harness technology to build public support and accomplish policy objectives.  Here are eight tips to help you begin:

  1. Do your homework. Conducting opinion research and message testing are critical first steps. If done properly, then you will be well-positioned to develop demographic and psychographic profiles for likely supporters and better understand how to reach them.

    These insights help identify online communities where potential allies organize — such as, a progressive activist platform with more than a million members — as well as determine what messages will best educate, persuade and motivate them to action.

    Every dollar invested in research to understand your key audiences helps ensure that subsequent dollars will return the greatest value and deliver measurable results.
  2. Prepare your messages. Advocacy issues are often highly charged on both sides.  This means that it’s critical to prepare a key message platform, including responses to frequently asked questions, that can be tailored to reply rapidly to stakeholders.
  3. Make it easy. Your website should be an important portal for advocacy, and the Web places a premium on clear, concise writing.

    Optimize online interactions at every stage. 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.

    Create a customized landing page for your emails to link to that will orient the user quickly, with an obvious path toward the desired response. Once they’ve acted, help supporters explore other sections of your site to learn more.
  4. Offer options. Provide a variety of ways for advocates to lend support.  These options should range from quick and easy (like joining your mailing list) to more involved (such as recruiting a friend or calling a member of Congress).

    Your goal is to lead grassroots allies up this engagement ladder, with each step reducing participation barriers and fostering ongoing dialogue.
  5. Get social. Whether you are engaged in social media or not, conversations about your issue are taking place across the Internet.

    So don’t sit on the sidelines —start by monitoring the conversation. Once you understand the online landscape, you may want to establish a presence and engage in discussions to demonstrate your expertise.

    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.

    Using social media channels to drive audiences back to your advocacy website (where they can learn more and take concrete actions) allows you to benefit from all available media platforms.
  6. Look for partners. Find groups who already cater to your target audiences. Some of them may have business models built around helping expand your contacts within their communities — and they can provide cost-effective ways to build a qualified list quickly.
  7. Remember to listen. Sending email alerts to your grassroots database still generates results.  Be sure to monitor your social media properties closely following an email distribution — especially when emailing new supporters — and be ready for a conversation.

    Recent recruits are enthusiastic, but they can also easily become skeptical and pose tough questions.  Earning their trust through subsequent individual interactions will pay dividends.

    Place an experienced and knowledgeable community manager at the helm to maximize these public interactions and mitigate threats to your organization’s brand.
  8. Segment, analyze and refine. Analytics data from your website and content management service provide a wealth of insight about what’s working and who’s acting. Use this intelligence to optimize future efforts and to tailor your approach.

In the end, building support for widespread change can be fraught with perception challenges. The success or failure of a grassroots advocacy campaign increasingly rests on a strategic understanding of political, environmental, economic and social landscapes that are unique to your issue.

Bill Buff
Bill Buff is executive vice president and senior partner at Stratacomm, a full-service strategic communications firm that helps clients educate, persuade and motivate people to drive results.
Email: bbuff at


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