The strategies and methods listed below are used daily by advocates across the world. While this list is not exhaustive, it will give readers a strong sense of the ways advocates – really – go about making change.
The emphasis on the word “really” is warranted. I stress this because much of the easily-findable material on the web about advocacy strategies was either 1) written for a very specific issue and audience or 2) very clearly written by an internet marketer. In fact, the latter of the two seems to dominate the web, which can set advocates down the wrong path.
While internet marketing material can be beneficial to advocates for communications and supporter engagement, the truth is that those aspects make up only a portion of an (effective) advocate’s time. Getting more social media followers is good, but it won’t get a bill passed into law.
With that in mind, I’ve collected 31 advocacy strategies and methods to build a network, pressure lawmakers, influence the media, and mobilize the all-powerful grassroots. The list is divided into four broad categories: 1) Relationship Building; 2) Government Relations, & Political Affairs; 3) Public Education & Media Relations; and 4) Grassroots Mobilization.
Note that this post assumes you know your demands (also called “asks”) and have a clear plan for how policymakers can meet those demands. If you need help planning, check out our post on what it means to be an advocate here.
The strategies below are, by and large, applicable at all levels (i.e. local, national, and international) and scalable depending on the number of supporters. You can think of the below list as strategies and methods to use in the proverbial (and nonviolent) trenches of advocacy. If you’re looking for broader social change strategies to win the proverbial (and nonviolent) war, check out our post –Seven Fundamental Strategies For Grassroots Movements.
- Impacted Communities
- Peer Groups & Other Advocates
- Grassroots Supporters
- Networks, Coalitions, & Working Groups
- Politicians & Officials
- Academics & Analysts
- Unlikely Allies & The Opposition
- The Press
Government Relations, & Political Affairs
- In-Person (Or Virtual) Lobbying
- Constituent Letter-writing & Phone Calls
- Peer Groups: Sign-on Letters & Pressure
- Political Platforms
- Legal Actions
- “The Record”
Public Education & Media Relations
- Web & Social Media Communications
- One-pagers & Basic Materials
- Reports & Original Research
- “Industry Participation”
- Event Coordination & Public Speaking
- Opinion Pieces (“Op-Eds”) & Analysis Articles
- Press Releases
- Media Appearances & Providing Quotes
- Advocacy Days or “Fly-ins”
- Town Halls & “Bird Dogging”
- Information pickets
- Conferences & Teach-ins
- Mobilization Through The Arts
Like many fields, effective advocacy requires networks of professional relationships that share information, collaborate, and pool resources to achieve results. Establishing and cultivating these linkages is central to an advocate’s job. The array of actors that advocates encounter is so vast that each actor requires its own approach. For example, cultivating relationships with other advocates is very different from cultivating one with a journalist or a lawmaker.
While no two relationships will be the same, there are general approaches advocates can take toward the various actors they encounter. Below are ten of the most common professional groups advocates will come across and how to approach relationship building in each context.
1. Impacted Communities
The first relationship advocates should focus on is with the community of those impacted by the situation the advocate is trying to change. The word “community” doesn’t necessarily mean a geographic area but could also mean a dispersed group of people dealing with the same issue.
In some cases, advocates may be part of the impacted community. However, these advocates should not make the mistake that they can carry on without consulting others. The very act of advocating can change a person’s perspective on the situation and how to achieve change. So, it’s vitally important to remain in touch with others impacted by the issue so as not to stray from community demands.
Some advocates may find it difficult to build a relationship with impacted communities. I know many peace advocates, for example, that work to end conflict in faraway places. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this mode of working, advocates who are not directly connected to the issue should make every effort to connect with voices from the community.
In cases where the issue is taking place in difficult-to-reach locations, keep an eye out for virtual events broadcast from that location or for local activists who may do speaking tours outside their country. Try to build relationships with the activists. At the very least, pay close attention to what they are saying and try to echo it when appropriate. Relating these experiences of hearing from local voices to lawmakers can be powerful (though not as powerful as from the impacted community itself).
This relationship is important to get right. When navigating political change, advocates should be willing to listen and ask for more direction from the impacted community.
2. Peer Groups & Other Advocates
With most issues, advocates will find that there is a community of activists and organizations that share similar views. These allies are critical to making real change and a new advocate’s second stop on the relationship-building train needs to be to the friendly actors in their space.
It’s fairly common practice for a new advocate to appear on the scene and request meetings with prospective allies. These meetings are simply to introduce themselves and learn more about what others are doing; they don’t always lead to collaboration right off the bat and that’s fine. The point is to begin the process of trust-building which is necessary for effective collaboration down the line.
A cautionary note is needed here. Advocates should always be aware that once they step foot “on the scene” they may be entering a space that is dense with existing dynamics between the various actors. Sometimes the dynamics are institutional or ideological, sometimes it’s highly personal. But, usually, it’s a mixture of all of the above.
To help ease your entry into this space, always be forthright, ask for recommendations from peers on who you should meet, and, if you feel like you’ve established some trust, ask directly if there are any dynamic issues that you should know about.
3. Grassroots Supporters
The distinction between grassroots supporters and peer advocates can be blurry at times but one can distinguish between the two by levels of engagement.
Grassroots supporters are those that may care deeply about an issue, but may not have the time or ability to be a 24/7 advocate. They may look for insight, analysis, and direction from coordinators and are willing to participate or join in collective action opportunities like letter-writing campaigns.
Advocates should always be mindful that grassroots supporters can make or break an issue. Linkages to those supporters should be treated with just as much gratitude and respect as one would show for someone in elected office. No advocate should have the lone wolf mindset (or worse, develop a network hierarchy). To succeed, advocates will need the help of everyday citizens who will need to care and feel empowered enough to take action.
Keeping grassroots supporters engaged is a big challenge for advocates. Once a base of supporters is amassed, they need to be kept informed and be given regular chances to participate. Advocates should frequently provide these opportunities in a variety of ways.
The sequencing and what’s called “participation barriers” of grassroots activity is important too. Advocates don’t want to ask too much of their supporters or overplay their leverage with lawmakers. Understanding the progression of action is important – see Grassroots Mobilization section below for more.
4. Networks, Coalitions, & Working Groups
While we discussed peer groups above, relationships between advocates are often different when groups come together in official or unofficial ways. There are many ways groups can come together to work toward change and the extra layer of identity warrants its own discussion apart from building bilateral relationships.
For some issues, there may be existing ways in which groups come together. Usually, it’s in unofficial ways. For example, many organizations will meet once a month or so to check-in and share about their work. This can be a great way to build a community, but may not always lead to joint activities.
Coalitions are often thought of as the most official way groups come together (though, the term is also used loosely in some settings). Since coalitions can require organizations to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) or make official commitments to the group as a whole, these types of arrangements are typically reserved for well-thought-out and resourced campaigns. Because of these commitments, it can take time or a very significant event for organizations to agree to this model.
More often than not, groups will gradually coalesce around each other and agree to begin some sort of informal working group. In my experience, what you call the group is usually not so important. What’s important is that groups are coming together, networks are forming, and cooperation is increasing.
If advocates find they are at the center of a new network always, always, always start as unofficial as possible; perhaps, with a single meeting or phone call with the most trusted allies. From there, take things slow and see if there is an appetite for more cooperation; if there is, gradually build towards it. It’s worth noting that cultivating these types of networks can take place over many years.
A whole book could be written on coalition work, but one last note that concerns us here. Getting groups to collaborate and share information isn’t always easy. It may start (or may always be) a bit bumpy. There may be many quiet phone calls and uneventful meetings; sometimes, it may feel like pulling teeth to get people to participate. Never take that stuff personally.
Often those at the center are looked at for leadership and some may just be willing to passively absorb information without contributing much in the beginning. If people keep showing up, take that as a sign that people are committed and keep holding down that space.
5. Politicians & Officials
For advocates, developing relationships with those who have the power to change the situation (or some small part of it) is critical. Note, however, that this relationship is listed fifth on this list. That’s because relationships with officials often require more time and energy than others; it’s the long game for advocates and it shouldn’t be rushed.
Depending on the issue, advocates may need to interact with a wide range of government officials. Some of the most common actors include:
- Officials in an executive body (e.g. mayor, president, representative to the UN Security Council, etc.);
- Officials in a legislative body (e.g. city council member, Senator, member of the Human Rights Council, etc.);
- The staff of elected officials (sometimes called “staffers”) (e.g. Chief of Staff, Legislative Aid, Adviser, etc).
- Note: It’s not uncommon for advocates to have more access and a better relationship with the staff of high-profile officials. This isn’t a bad thing and sometimes can be advantageous. If advocates can create a champion within the office, there’s a higher likelihood the elected official will eventually become convinced by that champion staffer (who has better access to the official than an advocate ever will);
- Appointed positions and independent experts (e.g. city treasurer, Secretary of State, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, etc.);
- Bureaucrats and regulators (e.g. Parks Department, Health and Human Services, UNESCO, etc.);
Advocates should attempt to understand which actors are involved in their issue and begin trying to establish productive relationships with those officials. Starting with an introductory meeting is OK, but advocates should always try to make the most of the little time they have with lawmakers. When approaching officials, it’s always good to come with an ask and have a clear objective for the meeting.
Many times the officials who have the power to change the situation can seem adversarial to an advocate’s position. They may even seem completely unapproachable at first. However, in some cases, advocates will be surprised at the willingness of officials to meet – even if the official knows a difficult conversation is coming.
6. Academics & Analysts
For many issues, there will be some set of academics, analysts, and other independent researchers who study the issue in depth. Advocates must become familiar with the work of these researchers as well as, if possible, the researchers themselves.
While advocates may have their takes on the quality of research and analysis, it’s always important to understand who is helping to drive the public discourse around the issue and researchers are very often at the core of public discourse.
These actors can be found in universities, “think tanks” (nonprofit research centers), and or in government-backed research departments. They can be often be overlooked but are an extremely valuable resource; many are extremely happy to talk about their research with advocates. Better yet, many also appreciate it when someone takes action based on their work.
Advocates should also be mindful that these people are human and they do work for institutions that sometimes receive funding from donors with agendas. Researchers can be limited in their roles or may even have noticeable biases.
So, it’s important to have some context of the research and the institution that produced it. ESPECIALLY, when advocates AGREE with the research. For many reasons, advocates should never let their confirmation bias get the best of them when they hear about research that supports their position. Not least of those reasons is that no one wants to be the person that hastily champions a new report that is later discredited.
Nonetheless, research is often a very useful tool for advocates and advocates must keep an open mind in these relationships as well.
Advocates may have the good fortune of gaining a celebrity ally who can use their high-profile to draw attention to the issue. Depending on the context, the level of influence of these actors could span from a local respected pastor to an Instagram star to Bono himself.
While gaining a celebrity ally can often feel like hitting the lottery, they can also disrupt or even damage a campaign if cooperation isn’t handled properly. Effective cooperation with an influencer depends on their competency as well as the ability of the advocate to communicate what would be most helpful from the influencer. It’s always important that any celebrity endorsement doesn’t drown out the voices of the impacted community.
In some instances, it may be very clear how an influencer could contribute. They may have a direct connection to an elected official, have a platform they can use to spread the message, etc.
In other cases, figuring out how to leverage influencers can be harder than one might imagine. As a general rule of thumb, advocates should encourage celebrities to call out specific public officials to take a specific action (e.g. “Senators X and Y need to work together to pass bill number 123” or “Mayor X needs to bring back the school lunch program”).
8. Unlikely Allies & The Opposition
Depending on the issue, advocates may or may not have outright opposition to their positions. In most cases though, advocates will have to deal with some sort of oppositional political force and apathy can be just as big of an obstacle as full-on resistance.
Advocates should make attempts at meeting with the opposition to exchange views constructively. Of course, in today’s political environment that can be difficult but it’s not impossible and many simply don’t try. While I have many more oppositional actors ignore my meeting requests than accept them, those few meetings that do take place can be pivotal.
The idea behind these meetings is not to convince the opposition, though that would be nice. In all reasonableness, advocates need to approach meetings with the opposition as a chance to open up a dialogue over the long term. If it’s difficult to get in touch with those on the “other side of the aisle,” consider asking a neutral third-party to host a private roundtable event. Outside moderators can do wonders at improving dialogue.
Lastly, advocates should always keep an eye out for those that may be on the other end of the political spectrum – but that actually agree with them (usually referred to as “unlikely allies”). No political party is a monolith (regardless of what it looks like from the outside) and more political collaboration takes place in civil society than one might imagine. If advocates see someone on the other side making an argument they agree with, it’s good practice to lift that up and use it as an entry point for further dialogue.
9. The Press
Relationships between advocates and journalists can be very beneficial for both parties. The press can help an advocate get their message out there and advocates can provide journalists with inside scoops, analysis, or their actions may be newsworthy in and of themselves.
Developing relationships with the press takes time and, while a high-profile helps, consistent actions and public education efforts are just as good. Over time, these efforts will be noticed and advocates often become experts, serving as valuable resources to the press.
However, advocates should always remember that a professional relationship with a journalist is not necessarily a friendship. The press has its agenda and advocates have theirs. Nothing is ever off the record unless BOTH parties agree. When in doubt, ask if they are recording. If you don’t know whether or not they are recording, there is a good chance they are. Always assume a journalist is recording any conversation over the phone or online.
It’s easy to get into a causal groove with some reporters, which can be problematic; advocates should always remain mindful of what they are saying and how they are saying it. Even in informal modes of communication such as texts and DMs. See below for more on working with the press.
Building donor relationships may or may not be an assigned task for advocates. In some cases, organizations may have staff dedicated to fundraising. In other cases, however, advocates may need to keep an eye out for funding opportunities. No matter the setup, advocates should be cognizant that their work may be used to attract donations at some point.
Keeping track of activities is a good idea for advocates as a matter of practice and especially when they may encounter prospective funders. Speaking to donors is not all that different from other actors advocates encounter. With donors, however, there is a different dynamic during the conversation. Advocates need to learn how to talk about their accomplishments just as effectively as they relate their issue arguments. Learning how to be honest about one’s accomplishments without seeming boastful is a skill that advocates should look to develop early on.
In my own experience, I often struggled to know what donors would find interesting or relevant. The day-to-day activities of advocates can be very complex and difficult to relate during brief exchanges over cocktails. While a donor’s interests will vary by person, I’ve generally found that the things I am most excited about are the best to relate. It may or may not even be the most important thing that’s happening, but my enthusiasm is evident and helps signal to donors that I’m committed and optimistic.
Government Relations, & Political Affairs
There are many ways to try to influence officials directly. Below are some of the most common and effective advocacy strategies to build pressure on those in power.
NOTE: This site does not provide legal advice. See our full legal disclaimer here. The following activities may have legal implications for you or your organization including but not limited to lobbying and engaging with political campaigns. Those working for nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations or 501(c)(4) organizations will have different legal regulations concerning some of the activities below. Always consult with the appropriate legal professionals if you are unsure of what activities are permissible.
11. In-Person (Or Virtual) Lobbying
While lobbying can sound like a dirty word to some, in reality, lobbying is a very basic civic engagement practice. Lobbying refers to the act of directly asking a member of Congress to vote in favor or against, amend, introduce, or co-sponsor legislation. The term can also apply when asking other citizens to contact their elected officials or when creating materials (e.g. flyers) that ask citizens to contact their elected officials about specific legislation.
In-person (or virtual) lobbying is likely one of the most effective advocacy tools. In a twelve-year study conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), congressional staffers were asked about the impact of lobbying visits. Tellingly, 94% of staffers surveyed said that in-person meetings from constituents (people who live in the elected official’s district) influenced undecided lawmakers.
While advocates may not always be a constituent, in-person meetings are even more important for those advocates who need to build trust with officials. In fact, many grassroots strategies won’t work unless advocates have built up some trust in-person.
If you’re new to lobbying or preparing for a lobby visit, I encourage you to check out our post on advocacy and lobbying here
12. Constituent Letter-writing & Phone Calls
At times, advocates act more as coordinators than they do persuaders. Organizing a constituent letter-writing or phone call campaign is a tried and true method that requires advocates to organize outside pressure.
Letters and phone calls are a great way to keep supporters involved and convince lawmakers. The CMF study linked above found that 92% of congressional staffers said individualized emails helped convince an undecided lawmaker.
These campaigns need to be timed right, though, typically just before a big decision point. They also need to be spaced out so as not to overburden supporters. Unless there is a series of decisions, it’s best to try not to run these types of campaigns back-to-back. If they need to run for a prolonged period, best to have one long campaign rather than several small ones (if possible).
Also, advocates should set up the campaign with the idea that they will need to repeat this process in the future. So, advocates should try to build their email lists, create checklists, and find systems they can use next time. See our digital campaign resources page for more.
Lastly, note that the CMF study discussed above discovered that there is some distrust for the facilitated advocacy process. According to the survey, 47% of congressional staffers distrusted form messages. The authors noted that advocates could help hedge against this distrust by building genuine relationships with staffers first.
13. Peer Groups: Sign-on Letters & Pressure
Utilizing the support of peer advocates and organizations is a slightly different method than mobilizing constituents. Peer groups often represent interests and thus are more like industry experts than they are like constituents. Understanding when to rely on your grassroots and when to mobilize peers can be more of an art than a science. At times, both methods may be required.
In general, advocates can expect their peers to be able to better respond to more complex problems and exert pressure for the small wins that don’t quite need a grassroots response.
It’s important to distinguish an organization’s expert voices from its grassroots base. If advocates need support from allies, it’s easier to ask for an organizational endorsement (meaning the organization signs the letter) than it is to ask them to mobilize their supporters to take action.
With that in mind, two effective means of mobilizing peers are 1) joint communications, and 2) group meetings. Joint communications can include co-authored letters, memos, statements, press releases, etc. If a group of allies is just beginning to collaborate it may take time to get to the point of joint communications. On the other hand, established and effective advocacy networks should be able to respond in near “real-time” to government and political processes.
Group meetings are also very effective. Having several issue experts in the same meeting with lawmakers can be a great way to show a “united front.” These meetings can be perfect interventions when an official is waffling on an issue.
Petitions can be an effective part of a broader advocacy strategy. At times, they may even be a necessary legal requirement to create local initiatives or begin other policymaking processes.
In essence, a petition is similar to a constituent letter-writing campaign. One major difference is that petitions can have a more dramatic impact when delivered. So, petitions lend themselves well to media campaigns and should be leveraged in the media for maximum impact.
Petitions tend to do best when treated as a campaign in and of themselves. In other words, creating communication materials like flyers and yard signs that read “have you signed the petition yet? Sign the petition and support [issue X] at www.[issueX].com.” Once enough signatures have been collected the signatures should be presented in a publicly visible way.
Many question whether petitions really work. They do, but they also require a lot of effort to do it correctly. As Scott Payne, a former congressional staffer once remarked to the New York Times,
Congressional offices are seeing a river of mail coming into their offices. Petitions add a garden hose to that.
15. Political Platforms
Elections are often important times for advocates as media hype can send the public discourse into hyperdrive. Through debate, media coverage, and ad bombardments, public opinion takes shape in the run-up to the election. Being able to help shape that discourse can be a potent way to move social issues.
Providing all the political candidates with the same educational resources can be a good way of engaging with this process. In this way, advocates can offer themselves as a resource on issues and communicate any relevant analysis or research.
Additionally, advocates can also use the electoral cycle to time their public education strategy and the release of communication materials. Releasing key research ahead of a debate can be a great way to get your issue into the limelight.
16. Legal Actions
Taking legal action can be one of the most effective ways to push forward an issue. However, it can also take considerable resources and skill as this strategy requires the help of expensive attorneys. At times, advocates may need to use legal action as part of a broader strategy to achieve the change they seek.
It’s important to note here that some of the most significant movements of the last two centuries had a wing of the movement dedicated to legal action. For example, the civil rights movement was advanced in part by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Thurgood Marshall through a series of legal victories.
Note that this category could also include strategies that are outside the courtroom as well. Public documentation of legal violations, corruption, or other abuses can be powerful instruments in the court of public opinion.
This approach is sometimes referred to as “naming and shaming” and often tries to hold officials accountable to legal standards or call attention to bad practices. Like all strategies, this one can come with risks. Advocates should always assess the legal and political environment before taking action.
For more information about this approach and how legal actions can be incorporated into larger social movements check out our post on grassroots strategies here.
17. “The Record”
Advocates don’t need to wait until the next big vote to nudge their issue along. The everyday business of government provides ample opportunity for advocates to influence what I’ll refer to as “The Record.”
The Record includes things like testimony and questioning at hearings, public comments on the Federal Register, public statements from officials, government policy documents, dear colleague letters (official correspondence between members of Congress), and official social media accounts.
It behooves advocates to keep an eye on relevant government committees and units as well as their cycles and processes. Staying ahead of the schedule can allow advocates to help shape the agenda. For example, if an important hearing is coming up, advocates can provide committee members with suggested questions for the witness. Or, if no hearing is in sight, advocates can suggest witnesses for the next hearing.
If advocates need to respond after the fact, the Record can be used for public education campaigns or to mobilize the grassroots. For example, highlighting key testimony or questioning can be a powerful public education tool – especially over social media. Or, if an official makes a statement on the issue, advocates can use it to motivate grassroots supporters to take action.
Most importantly, the Record also helps slowly nudge officials along on positions. More often than not, this is where the day-to-day progress of advocacy is achieved. Getting lawmakers to refine language and discuss the issue differently is what usually leads to a change in action or policy down the line.
Public Education & Media Relations
Public education and media relations are, perhaps, what truly sets apart an advocate from a lobbyist. Advocacy often seeks to influence public opinion and behavior as opposed to just legislation and policy. This is often referred to as “changing the narrative.” Below are some of the most common ways of influencing public opinion.
18. Web & Social Media Communications
The web and social media are important tools – but they are not the ONLY tools. While it’s critically important that advocates have some understanding of how to move their issues online, advocates should also recognize the limitations of web-based communications.
That being said, advocates would be wise to gain a solid understanding of how to use online tools to their advantage. I’ve spent many hours digging through decades of academic research as well as material from internet marketers to try to understand how advocates can better use the web for social causes. If you’re interested in more, check out these posts:
- Digital & Social Media Advocacy: Strategies, Tips & Warnings
- The Impact of Social Media on Politics: A Full Overview
- Political Campaigns on Social Media (Notes from My Research)
19. One-pagers & Basic Materials
Basic communication materials can be some of the most cost-effective public education tools. These materials can include anything from flyers to posters to one-pagers. Done effectively, basic materials can help build recognition and move critical issues – even for major decisions.
For example, in his book Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Others, John Daly describes a scene in which former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger convinced then-President Ronald Regan not to propose budget cuts to the military using simple cartoons. One showed a pitiful, thin, and shrunken soldier to illustrate a smaller budget, and one depicted a strong, muscular, and equipped soldier to illustrate a larger budget. Regan was moved by the simple illustrations and accepted Weinberger’s proposal for a bigger budget.
The anecdote illustrates just how powerful basic communication materials can be. For more on basic communications check out these resources:
20. Reports & Original Research
Conducting research is another tool for advocates that want to build a larger case for their cause. Advocates should approach research cautiously, however. There are a few things to keep in mind.
- Make sure there is a strategy to utilize the research. Will a report help make a case for a city resolution or bill in a congress? Advocates should avoid doing research for research sake.
- Original research is best coming from those well trained in the relevant fields such as statistics or economics. However, advocates can also do well by using qualitative and anecdotal research collected without the help of academics.
- Original research usually has the best chance of “going viral” and the rollout should be carefully thought through. Read more in our post on digital advocacy tips here.
- Research is most powerful when collaborating with other individuals and institutions. Consider teaming up with another organization or local research institute.
- If necessary, consider offering a grant to allow better-equipped professional researchers to take over the project.
21. “Industry Participation”
Like any profession, there are different professional circles in advocacy that are in constant contact through things like conferences, webinars, panel discussions, listservs, public events, and other means. Any advocate needs to participate in these networks both for their issue as well as for the larger “industry” of advocacy to grow and maintain key skills.
For some issues, advocates may feel a bit overwhelmed on where to place their time. In general, it’s a good idea to start by participating heavily and to get exposure to as many viewpoints as possible.
Later on, advocates tend to dial back attendance to these types of gatherings and spend more time focusing on their campaigns. These activities should never be neglected altogether, though. They are pivotal to ensure advocates are feeding their campaigns plenty of fresh ideas.
22. Event Coordination & Public Speaking
Advocates can also coordinate industry events themselves or serve as a speaker for events coordinated by others. These events are important opportunities to build relationships with virtually every actor listed in the relationship-building section above.
Coordinating these events can require a lot of work. Online versions offer easier alternatives, but they are still a lot of work! Typically advocates will need a partner or a strong organizational commitment to put resources behind the event. Once advocates feel established in their issue area, a good goal is to try to coordinate at least one major event a year.
Speaking at events that others coordinate should always be a welcome opportunity for advocates. I have personally done hundreds of speaking engagements and, while I don’t think advocates should necessarily accept every invitation they get, I have always held the philosophy that when invited to speak at an event I should try to accept unless there is a clear reason not to.
Over time, enough small engagements will pay off in the form of strong professional connections and opportunities. Beware, however, that some engagements may be more difficult than others. Always, always, have a way to respond to the most difficult questions you could face (see Media Appearances & Providing Quotes for more) and always, always keep your cool.
23. Opinion Pieces (“Op-Eds”) & Analysis Articles
Writing articles to be published in third-party outlets is another common way for advocates to get their message out there. These pieces should be relevant to the time, of course, but it’s also not necessary to wait for the perfect moment to submit an article.
Some advocates debate the merits of op-eds, but almost every advocate I know has written something for some outlet at some point. These pieces are usually most impactful when they 1) can relate current events to a specific demand such as how to vote on a bill, and 2) call out specific policymakers who can make that demand happen.
New advocates should spend some time trying to build up a canon of works both self-published and in third party outlets. And, remember, there’s no shame in working with small and/or local outlets!
To learn more about writing op-eds, check out this Harvard Communications presentation.
24. Press Releases
Press releases can be a good way to “make news happen” and are very simple documents. Typically press releases are no more than two pages and provide a statement or announcement and usually a few quotes. The documents are then delivered to journalists often using specialized software.
Advocates should use their best judgment when determining if something is newsworthy, but advocates shouldn’t be shy either. News cycles can be difficult to predict. One never knows if a press release might catch a reporter at the right time.
Usually, press releases are used as a nice booster for ongoing efforts. For example, an advocate could issue a press release when they deliver an impressive number of signatures on a petition or when they send a sign-on letter to policymakers. Many of the methods on this list could warrant a press release.
If you’re new to writing press releases, I’d check out CoSchedule’s breakdown of the process here.
25. Media Appearances & Providing Quotes
Media appearances and providing quotes are valuable tools for public education campaigns. Advocates should become comfortable with handling journalists and the art of steering the conversation. Understanding a few basic principles of working with the media can go a long way. These include:
- Always be as clear and concise as possible. When you’re done speaking, stop. And, be comfortable with that silence. A good reporter will wait a brief period after an interviewee’s comment, which often prompts interviewees to keep speaking. Don’t take the bait. That’s when people tend to go “off-script” and say something they didn’t think through.
- It’s good to be as helpful to reporters as possible, but it’s not necessary to comment on everything. To decline a request, try to do so without saying the words “no comment.” That phrase can often be reported and give the wrong impression. Try something like “I don’t have any insight for you there.”
- For live appearances, advocates can field difficult questions by taking the conversation where they want it to go. Many guests on the news skillfully use phrases like “that’s an interesting topic, but I think the real issue is…” to help steer things away from difficult questions.
- Always be congenial with the press, even when the reporting is unfavorable. Politely declining future engagements with difficult journalists is infinitely more productive than starting a feud with a journalist.
- For on-camera appearances, don’t wear strange patterned clothing or all green attire which can have strange effects or be edited easily.
Advocates often require the help of grassroots activists to move their issues. Without this type of mobilization, it can be difficult (though not impossible) to move lawmakers. Advocates have two roles when it comes to working with the grassroots – 1) relating, clarifying, and summarizing the current political or policy context around an issue, and 2) make taking action as easy, engaging, rewarding, and effectual as possible. Below are some of the best ways to do just that.
26. Advocacy Days or “Fly-ins”
Advocacy days or “fly-ins” (as they are sometimes called in Washington) are really exciting events that bring together supporters to lobby their officials. This event goes by other names as well and, in essence, this method can be applied at all levels of government from city councils to the UN.
This type of event aims to bring constituents and supporters of an issue to meet with their public officials and present “asks” (or demands). Sometimes these events require supporters to go to the capital to participate in-person (hence the name “fly-in”).
These can be important demonstrations of public support even with small numbers. I have coordinated and participated in advocacy days with groups as small as 12 and with groups as large as several hundred. While they don’t always succeed in getting demands met, they do maintain momentum politically and they help build capacity among the grassroots. There is no doubt in my mind they have an impact.
To some degree, advocacy days are to lobbying as petitions are to letter-writing. However, advocacy days also have several added benefits including charging up the grassroots base. Almost always, newcomers are nervous about meeting with lawmakers and don’t know what to expect or what they got themselves into. But, inevitably by the end of the event, participants will feel a strong sense of empowerment. Most people return to these events annually and/or recommend it to their friends.
Coordinating these events can be a lot of work. I recommend advocates make things as simple as possible for participants, which means a lot of “going the extra mile.” The extra work pays off handsomely though when the day comes and the logistics are well thought out.
While mistakes are bound to happen, advocates should take great care with these events as they put a lot on the line setting up meetings between constituents and lawmakers. Thinking through everything from lodging and meals to training participants to designing leave-behind materials to selecting appropriate “asks” are critical before the big day. Teaming up with other advocates is a good way to share the burden and draw in more supporters.
27. Town Halls & “Bird Dogging”
Advocates can also help grassroots supporters leverage local public events with elected officials. This type of collaboration takes some preparation and committed supporters, but it can be extremely effective.
These initiatives require advocates and grassroots supporters to identify issues they would like officials to talk about publically. Then, they work to get public officials on the record with some questions about those issues. This is most effective at town hall events – preferably with high attendance and a media presence. During the question and answer period, the grassroots supporter then asks a premeditated question.
This strategy is sometimes called “bird-dogging.” It’s especially useful during election season as candidates make so many public appearances and engage with constituents more frequently. It’s most powerful when coordinated between several communities.
In some cases, advocates can target specific communities with limited resources. For example, Iowa and New Hampshire are important for bird-dogging in US presidential elections as the communities are small and allow access to candidates. If you’re interested in bird-dogging, I recommend reading this guide from the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
It should be noted that this strategy is also employed in political resistance strategies when, instead of aiming to get public officials on the record, the goal is to undermine a politician’s credibility or ability to act by “hijacking” the conversation at these events. This style of political resistance can be detrimental to a community and advocates should exercise careful judgment when using strategies of political resistance.
28. Information pickets
Information pickets are a very powerful strategy that is, perhaps, one of the least well-known among new advocates. The idea behind these efforts is to call attention to a public official’s behavior or how a public official is responding to an issue. To do this, advocates create a “picket” of information by saturating the area around or near the official’s office with posters, flyers, banners, etc, and (hopefully) a group of chanting supporters that are willing to engage passersby.
A progression of strategies should precede an information picket and this strategy is best left for the moments in which advocates feel they have no choice left. I would suggest that advocates be transparent with the official and their staff that, if a demand is not met by a certain date, they can expect an information picket around their office.
Strategies like information pickets take advocates into a more confrontational realm than some of the others on this list. Confrontation, however, doesn’t need to be antagonistic. There is a way to be firm but also respectful and learning how to balance these traits is essential for the moments when confrontation arises.
Note that this strategy is NOT appreciated by many lawmakers and their staff. After all, it’s a bit embarrassing to have people surround your office and chant things that make you look bad. So, advocates should be mindful that this strategy may work, but could damage relationships. Make the calculation wisely and remember that this is part of what public officials sign up for when they take the job.
Most people likely think of protests and rallies when they think of the “grassroots.” That’s important to keep in mind for advocates because demonstrations tend to be one of the most visible ways to call attention to an issue.
Demonstrations could include a wide range of activities including protests, rallies, sit-ins, “die-ins,” strikes, and more. These activities are not all that different from an informational picket at their core, but there are some key differences.
Grassroots rallies and the like tend to be more issue-focused than they are focused on any particular official like information pickets. Additionally, the timing and nature of demonstrations are more independent from the policymaking process. In other words, they can be spontaneous or in response to events outside of government.
If advocates need to organize a demonstration of some sort, they should recognize that these events are part of the “long game.” It’s not very common for these types of events to produce immediate change and they can often feel anticlimactic. There is usually a lot of energy and enthusiasm around these efforts. It can feel strange then when, at the end of the day, it’s just time to go home – without any real resolution.
Nonetheless, demonstrations can be an important way to mobilize the grassroots and educate the public on important issues. The nature of protests tends to get coordinators completely absorbed in crowd control and/or focused on the media, pictures, and social media. Advocates should remember to also make the event “tactically useful.” Gather signatures for a petition while people are waiting around, get people to contact their lawmakers, collect email signatures for a listserv, etc.
30. Conferences & Teach-ins
Advocates are often very focused on getting their grassroots supporters to take action and to build relationships with lawmakers. However, it’s also important to build relationships between supporters. Common ways to “network weave” among the grassroots are good old-fashioned conferences and teach-ins (or even webinars).
These events differ from those discussed above in that they are meant to be a “safe space” for like-minded individuals. These events are not meant to push anyone to act or move along any advocacy demand; they are solely to build connections among supporters. Participants are only looking to learn more about an issue from trusted allies and to connect with others on the issue.
These types of events have important implications for social change work. Some may question the value of these methods because there aren’t many tangible benefits or visible outcomes. In reality, however, these networking events are pivotal to creating a healthy network of capable individuals. Supporters are much more likely to stay engaged when they feel they are part of a community rather than another email on a list.
These events are often easier to coordinate than things like “fly-ins.” They can also be pretty casual and lighthearted (if appropriate). Advocates should look to create these lower-stress environments to help form a stronger grassroots base, as long as one doesn’t get stuck in a pattern of only coordinating networking events.
31. Mobilization Through The Arts
The relationships between advocates and artists are one that doesn’t get enough praise. In most grassroots circles there are bound to be artists of one form or another. Those who are willing to use their skills in the name of advocacy should always be welcomed with open arms.
There is no limit to how the arts can be used in advocacy and public education. Some common mediums include documentaries/cinema, murals, music, books, poetry, graphic design, and homemade crafts. Before diving into collaboration though, advocates should sufficiently prepare artists for their contribution.
Advocates should make an effort to link the artist to the impacted community if they are not a part of it; artists may need to consider the current circumstances when designing their work. It might also help for the advocate to brief the artist on the overall strategy for change and current state of the issue in government.
Lastly, advocates should discuss with the artist ways in which their contribution can help mobilize supporters. For instance, screening a documentary and then asking viewers to call their members of Congress immediately following the film would be a nice “engagement funnel” for supporters. Art can be a powerful motivator and it’s good practice to harness that motivation whenever possible.