Strategic Communication with U.S. Policy-Makers

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Strategic Communication with U.S. Policy-Makers

While many organizations tend to neglect government relations, it is reported that those who include government relations in their business strategy maintain a clear comparative advantage. Below is a summary of findings on key components of effective communication strategies targeting U.S. policymakers, particularly in the nation's capital, and examples of successful uses of these strategies.

Communication Strategies Targeting U.S. Policymakers and Leaders

  • As with any communication and marketing strategy, key messages are very important in government relations. This begins with identifying the organization's communication objectives: the reasons for communicating to policymakers. For instance, the objectives may be to increase visibility, gain support from policymakers, alert policymakers, and/or persuade them to change a policy. Methods of communication and messages will depend on the objectives.
  • Once communication objectives are defined, develop key messages starting with information on the existence of the importance of the topic (as defined in the objectives). Then provide detailed evidence.
  • There are different types of messages an organization may convey. Examples include awareness, importance, analysis, options, recommendations, and legal language. The objectives and types of messages will determine the type(s) of communication channel(s) through which the messages are sent.
  • There are four types of channels to reach policymakers: the organization's own publication (printed or audiovisual materials), mass media, face-to-face, and social/professional networks. The first type of channel may be in the form of brochure, newsletters, reports, letters, videos and/or blogs. Another channel is through mass media, including interviews on TV or radio, news stories or op-ed articles. The key difference between these two types of channel is that mass media can reach a larger audience and influence public opinions, which are important to policymakers. However, unlike the organization's own publication, mass media does not allow the organization to control the messages and the version of the stories it wants to present. The third channel is through face-to-face meetings. Examples include lobbying, conferences, debates, and briefings. While reaching a smaller audience, this channel is more targeted and provides possibilities for feedback. The last channel is through social and professional networks. This is a less formal version of the third type of channel. This channel usually involves developing networks through social events, associates, former colleagues or hiring staff that comes with extensive networks with policymakers. This channel reaches a very small number of people who may be very influential.
In other words, the first step in developing an effective communication strategy includes defining the communication objectives, developing key messages and choosing a channel or a combination of channels to convey those messages. The choice of communication channel(s) depends on the objectives and type of messages the organization wants to convey. For example, a more technical and less controversial message may be conveyed through face-to-face meetings or social/professional networks and targeted publications on the topic while more controversial messages may require mass media to influence the public debates, which influence policymakers.

  • Prior to implementing a communication strategy, the audience must be defined first. The next step after defining the communication objectives and messages is getting to know Washington, from process to players, to effectively determine the target audience.
  • Washington audience may be grouped into four categories: Representatives and Senators, congressional staff, congressional committee staff members, and regulators. A successful communication strategy requires clearly defined targets and an understanding of the targets.
  • U.S. Representatives and Senators are legislators at the federal level. These people are very busy with both national issues and their constituents. On average a Congressperson (U.S. Representative) has about 500,000 constituents and an average U.S. Senator has about five million. Also note that some Members of Congress are more influential than others and some are more effective than others. Depending on the communication objectives and messages, it is important to study them, their stance and their impact to determine which of them to target. A good place to start is the ranking of congressional effectiveness by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, which calculates effectiveness scores for each Congressperson and Senator. Last year's ranking may be found here. Be sure to keep an updated record of these scores and thoroughly study the analysis of the report.
  • Due to their busy schedule, Members of Congress (Representatives and Senators) delegate much of their work to congressional staff. While those who are familiar with Washington know how important congressional staffers are, outsiders may underestimate their impact. Staffers not only provide information and expertise to their bosses, they may also "a) bring their specific skillsets to the new office and b) create linkages (networks) between these offices" when they leave one congressional office to another. In fact, it is reported that Members of Congress "who are connected to each other through sharing senior staff (i.e., a senior staffer from one office moves to another office) are more likely to resemble each other in effectiveness and ideological alignment than we would otherwise expect." This is evidence of how much of an influence senior staffers have on their bosses (Members of Congress). Thus, an effective communication strategy targeting Members of Congress should be directed at their senior staffers.
  • Congressional committee staff members are professionals who work for congressional committees to provide expertise specific to the topics of each committee. The staff members are divided into majority and minority staff, reflecting the party ratios of Members of Congress. These staff members tend to have more specific expertise in particular areas and therefore are fit for communication types that are more technical (for example, reports and policy papers). To identify the right target committee staff members, the specific congressional committees relevant to the communication objectives and messages must be identified.
  • Regulators fall under the power of the executive branch (i.e., the Administration). Regulators do work with and take feedback from the affected parties. Thus, it is important to identify the regulators relevant to your organization. It is also essential to understand the process of policy or regulations that affect your organization and the parties involved. For instance, certain tasks fall under the regulators and do not need the involvement of Congress while certain regulations are imposed by Congress and cannot be changed by regulators. Additionally, regulators are more receptive of those who work to help them accomplish their job instead of berating them. An example of this is a communication method that provides useful and hard-to-collect information.
  • It goes without saying that communication is better received when there is an established relationship. Once key targeted audience is identified, it is important to establish long-term relationships with them, not only when you need them. The Public Leadership Institute suggests simple gestures such as praises and congratulations to policymakers and their staff when they achieve something, even on issues that are not relevant to your organization. Other strategies to establish relationships with policymakers include inviting them to your events, providing them opportunities to connect with your networks, offering them ideas or research on issues in which your organization have expertise, and drafting op-ed articles for them. Policymakers do rely on interest groups and other organizations they work with for resources and information.
  • Consistent communication means that your organization consistently keeps in touch with policymakers and their staff to remain front-of-mind for them, not only asking them to take a particular action.
  • For elected officials, establishing a legitimate and legal method of donating to their campaigns is another way to build long-term relationships.
  • As mentioned in the initial findings, working with a communication firm with a specialization in government relations is key to establishing a successful communication strategy targeting Washington. At the same time, it is also essential to incorporate in-house government relations team.
  • Choosing the right communication firm can help smooth the initial process of creating a communication strategy, from knowledge of the process and players in Washington to digital expertise. It is therefore important to understand that for communication strategy targeting government leaders and policymakers, your organization needs a firm that has intimate knowledge of Washington, not a marketing firm.
  • Building your in-house team is also essential. Depending on the characteristics of the organization, in-house government relations teams vary in size and composition. For instance, Cisco has a government affairs team made up of "former public officials, both elected and appointed, as well as seasoned government affairs professionals." The importance of the team is evidenced by the fact that it reports directly to Cisco's Chief Executive Officer.
  • Cisco also has an employee political committee (ePAC) which "enables eligible U.S. employees to contribute to the campaigns of U.S. federal and state elected officials and political candidates who champion the technology industry’s public policy priorities. All campaign contributions made by Cisco’s ePAC are made according to a plan that supports Cisco’s policy objectives and is approved annually by the ePAC board." This is an example of identifying the targets relevant to your organization and a method in building relationships through campaign donations.
  • Tracking issues relevant to your organization is another important component of an effective communication strategy. Staying current on mentions of bills, press releases or social media posts on issues relevant to your business and organization allows you to understand the trend and tailor your communication strategy accordingly.
  • Some organizations employ tracking software to alert them of any mention of their interested policy topics. There are many options for such software. Some offer platforms that collaborate "the work of government relations, risk management, corporate communications, and more." Such software alerts users of new bill proposals, provides current talking points, assesses risk, and stores contacts, meetings and notes.
  • Similarly, digital strategy is key in a digital era when communication has gone beyond traditional methods. As social media is widely adopted by marketers, similar methods can be employed in government relations. Social media may help to create awareness and messages to "reach key influential audiences such as policymakers, reporters, grassroots supporters, voters, and other relevant online stakeholders."
  • Some organizations leverage social media to set themselves as thought leaders in their space and thus attracting reporters, academics and policymakers when a policy topic relevant to the organization arises. For example, "UPS, Home Depot and Microsoft have used separate Twitter handles successfully to increase engagement and awareness around their advocacy work."
  • This may or may not be relevant depending on the nature of the organization and its defined communication objectives. Grassroots strategy "is about finding strength in numbers — and harnessing that strength to influence public opinion and government action." According to studies by the Congressional Management Foundation, most people contacting Congress said they had been asked to do so by a third party.
  • Thanks to the internet and social media, constituent communication is at record levels. Undoubtedly, constituents have an impact on policymakers in Washington, many of whom use social media to interact with the public. This suggests that digital strategy and grassroots strategy may work hand in hand. However, whether a grassroots strategy is needed or not depends on the issues relevant to the communication objectives of the organization. For instance, a technical issue that impacts a limited number of population may not able to energize grassroots supporters.
  • The last but not least component of an effective communication strategy is metrics of success measurement. There are five strategies in measuring such success:
1. Financial measurement (for example, using a model to calculate the impact of a policy on the number of products sold)
2. Rate of preferred legislative or regulatory outcomes
3. Stakeholder scoring (qualitative and quantitative)
4. Meeting tracking (data on meetings)
5. Correlation between engagement and government relations activity (for example, the rate of response/engagement for a given communication method)

Examples of Successful Uses

WALMART: Communicating Impact to Congress
  • One of the communication objectives of Walmart's government affairs was to communicate its impact in districts to Congress (define communication objectives and messages).
  • For the purpose of presenting its impact, Walmart compiled its own report on its impact in districts, including information opening of its stores or facilities, its donations to the public in given districts, and any other relevant press mentions of its brand (first type of communication channel, publishing its own materials such as reports).
  • Walmart then identified legislators representing the impacted districts (identify targets). To gather information on their staffers, Walmart employed Quorum’s database of contact information for staffers and sent tailored emails to the identified staffers (software and digital strategy). In addition, Walmart also sent out invitations to Members of Congress for events at the districts that they represented (building relationships).
For this particular communication objective, the task is fairly simple although would have been time-consuming. Walmart manages to regularly bring legislators on site through this consistent and targeted communication method.

AMERICAN SOCIETY OF ANESTHESIOLOGISTS: Leveraging Grassroots Network to Engage with Congress
  • American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) wanted to grow its grassroots network and leverage it for engagement with legislators. ASA improved registration on its website and tracking of registered advocates identified as having strong relationships with Members of Congress.
  • ASA also developed an advocacy training program, which registered advocates have the options to opt-in. The program contains information on advocacy, from the structure of Congress to how to call legislators.
  • Advocates then are encouraged to engage with their legislators. "ASA provides the option to write letters to their legislator’s office on a particular policy issue, submit a personal story on how policies have affected their work, or schedule a meeting with a congressional office."
  • ASA employs a software to track its metrics of success, from the number of advocates it has registered to how many actions have been taken.
With its clearly defined objective (to grow grassroots network, which will be leveraged to engage with Congress), ASA improved its system, from registration and tracking of actions to advocacy materials. As a result, it has seen growth in its grassroots network and an effective system that is easy for its advocates to use for congressional engagement.

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