Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru, is author of “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress” and a former Capitol Hill veteran. She lives and works in Washington, DC, offering workshops and advice on effective advocacy. Find out more at www.advocacyguru.com.
This election marks the transition of the Internet from the “whiz-bang” new kid on the block to a serious long-term contender in terms of advocacy tools. Businesses, organizations, and even citizens are starting to think about how the Internet can be most effectively used for communicating with elected officials. To be successful, cyber-advocates in the future will need to move away from the “numbers game” to focus instead on using the Internet to build and maintain grassroots networks, train people in effective citizenship and advocacy, and engage in meaningful dialogues with elected officials, as opposed to a one-way rant. In this article, I hope to offer some insights into how the Internet and cyber-advocacy are perceived on Capitol hill, as well as how cyber-lobbyists can best use the strengths of the Internet to build truly effective advocacy campaigns. I’ve also included my top five list of things for effective cyber-advocates to remember, as well as a range of resources along the way.
Context of the Internet on Capitol Hill
I equate the evolution of the Internet on Capitol Hill with the five stages of grief. First, there was denial. Members and staff refused to believe that anyone would want to communicate with their elected officials via e-mail. Then came anger – “Grr! On top of everything else we have to do, NOW we have to answer e-mails?” Next was bargaining, where staff actually sought to strike deals with constituents and their boss. In exchange for answering snail mail much faster, they sought to avoid answering e-mail. When the bargaining failed, depression followed. Some offices are still in this phase. Finally, many offices are moving to a stage of acceptance. Both the staff and Members realize that Internet-based communications are here to stay.
With acceptance has come adaptation. Congressional offices are starting to understand how to use new technology to combat the volume of e-mails. We should not be surprised. In fact, Congress has a history of adapting (albeit slowly) to new “volume increasing” technologies. One need only look to the movement to individual direct phone lines and voice mail, or the movement to public and private fax machines within Congressional offices, for evidence.
How Do Congressional Offices Deal with Volume?
One of the main ways Congressional staff deal with volume is to “triage” the communications – hence, the very high volume, low originality e-mails, blast faxes, postcard campaigns, etc. are virtually ignored. In fact, in an ironic twist, the deluge of increased communications via e-mail petition and spam campaigns has lead to a dramatic decrease in their effectiveness.
Another, possibly more effective means that offices now use to deal with the deluge of e-mails specifically is through sophisticated filtering systems. In these cases, e-mails that do not include an address, or that reflect an address not in the district, are automatically routed out of the system. These users receive a reply indicating that if they live in the district, they should resend the message with a valid street address. Other senders are encouraged to contact their own representatives. Some filtering systems even automatically filter out e-mails that are part of a larger “volume” based effort. Once it becomes clear that an e-mail campaign is being waged, the filters are set to shuttle those messages into a special category. Generally, these messages receive attention if and when the staff have time to review them.
Finally, some offices have resorting to accepting only those Internet-based communications that come through a form on the member’s web page, or through the “Write Your Rep” capability on the House main site. Users who send e-mails to their representative’s e-mail addresses directly receive an automatic response indicating that if they would like a response, they must go through the website or “Write Your Rep.” page.
What Does This Mean for Cyber-Activists?
Frankly, it means that cyber-advocacy is not the silver-bullets some of us once thought. Effective advocacy of any sort is still about the basics. Whether you’re communicating via e-mail, snail mail, telephone, or carrier pigeon, what is said to elected officials, who says it, and how it is said (i.e., message development) is more important than the method chosen to relay the message. At its most basic level, e-mails are the latest in a long line of message delivery tools, like the telegraph, phone, and fax machines before it. The strength of the Internet is not in the ability to send 50,000 identical e-mails from a specific advocacy web page. The real strength of the Internet for cyber-advocacy lies in the research, network, and training capabilities that answer the what, who, and how questions.
Using the Internet's Strength
So, how do you use the Internet’s strength to develop and deliver messages that Congress (and other elected officials for that matter) really listens to? I have identified six areas where I believe cyber-advocates (or those developing full-fledged cyber advocacy campaigns) can best focus their efforts. They are research, monitoring, sharing “real time” information, community building, training, and organization.
One of the items I’ve left out of this list is the ability to develop, post, and encourage people to send form letters. Yes, you can use web-based techniques for this kind of activity. But frankly, it’s just not the highest and best use of the web for truly influencing policy-makers. Truly effective advocacy takes a combination to getting the right people to say the right thing to the right person at the right time in the right way. The Internet certainly makes some of those tasks easier, as discussed below, but it cannot be used to meet all of those goals.
The Internet offers amazing resources to help you, your clients, or your members figure out both what is needed, and who to ask. Clearly, the most effective web-based advocacy campaigns include links to talking papers, briefing materials, and fact sheets on a particular issue. This assists the target audience (i.e., the people you want to take action) in making sure they have their “ask” down. As we all know, contacting a Congressional office without asking for something simply begs for a “Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I’ll keep your views in mind.” response. In addition, making sure that users can identify and communicate directly with their OWN representatives is critical. Whether you use an integrated software program like Capitol Advantage, IDI, VoteNet, or Vocus or a free service like www.congress.org, people must be able to both find their own officials and understand why it’s important to communicate only with them.
If you want to take the research capabilities of your site even further, consider how research resources can help your audience with the “how things are said” question, i.e., message development. For example, a person who uses the Internet to review your talking papers, write a quick, personal note, and send it off to their elected official may be effective. However, the person who uses web resources to learn more about the issue in question through, for example, the Library of Congress’ Thomas site, and also learns something about what their elected officials care about, can develop a message that will really make someone in the office take notice. One look at most Members’ web pages will provide a pretty fair indication of what that Member cares about. Messages that are put in the context of what the recipient cares about pack a wallop.
Through resources widely available on the World Wide Web, effective advocates can easily monitor the status of legislation, federal agency actions, and general important happenings in the world of politics. This will assist in figuring out “when to ask”. For example, if your activists are able to keep track of Congressional hearings, the movement of appropriations bills, or upcoming floor action, they will be much better equipped to ask their Representatives to take action far enough in advance to have an impact on the Member’s decision-making process. You can use a paid service like GalleryWatch, which monitors legislative activity and alerts you when something “big” is happening, or simply provide hotlinks to the relevant pages on Thomas or the House and Senate sites. Another option is IQExpress. At this site, you can bookmark directly in to the Committee schedule page on the House site (for example), for quick and easy monitoring. Another great option is the “Watch your Congressman” feature at Your Congress.com, which allows you to monitor the votes and actions of a specific member. Your Congress has also launched an electronic monitoring service that you may want to investigate.
Sharing "Real Time" Information
Perhaps one of the most amazing (and underutilized) strengths of the Internet is the ability to share “real time” information. This goes one step beyond monitoring legislation that is introduced on Thomas, for example, because that process still relies upon someone actually inputting the information into the program. The sharing of “real time” or close to real time information allows you to make sure you are getting to the right people at the right time. Good examples of this approach are the House of Representatives house floor and house vote information, which allow you to follow proceedings on the floor and votes in close to real time. Another great example is C-Span’s use of the web to simulcast hearings. Learn more at www.c-span.org/congress. Finally, there are several simple technologies you can use to provide real-time information on your webpage or to your activists, such as moreover.com. At this site, you can download a free news headline feeder for your site covering one of over 300 topics.
Using the Internet to create a network and use that network to develop personal messages is one of the most effective “cyber-lobbying” techniques around. Through a combination of list serves, web-based content, chat rooms, and other tools, effective advocates can build a community of like-minded individuals, and encourage political action. E-democracy.org has a very useful tutorial on setting up a common area on the web at www.e-democracy.org/do/commons.html. You can also direct users to sites like Actionize.com, where people from all around the country and all around the world get together to write letters and discuss strategies for lobbying on the issues they care about. Or, consider posting a free message board on your site from coolboard.com. Through the message board, activists can learn from you and one another. Just remember that in order to be influential, this online community must understand the rules of effective advocacy – personal letters are “in”, petitions and spam e-mail campaigns are “out”. Perhaps a good example of this is a recent page I put together for a group of cancer patients in Templeton, CA. You can find out more at www.advocacyguru.com/templeton_demo.htm
A relatively untapped area, but I believe the next “big thing” in effective use of the Internet, is online training. Through online training, activists can gain insights into the all-important question of “how to ask”. Whether the training occurs through one of the many free online courses at sites such as Learn2.com, eHow.com, or advocacyguru.com, or whether you take a more interactive approach with an online learning provider like avidlearn.com, using the Internet to train people outside the beltway can dramatically improve your results. Also, be sure to check out the cyber-advocacy tutorial at NetAction. This is a very useful piece for anyone embarking on a cyber-lobbying effort.
Finally, Internet-based tools can make organizing your effort a snap. Fee-based and free tools can assist you in identifying potential advocates, keeping track of important dates, and making sure that the right people are sending messages at the right time. You can even set up interactive web-based calendars that activists can use to keep track of their advocacy activities, or post plug-ins that allow your activists to post important dates directly and easily to their desktop organizers, such as Microsoft Outlook. Both the Bush and Gore campaigns used these resources to great effect in the last campaign cycle, as did Senator McCain. Some content providers even allow users to save interesting articles and information to a private space on the web. A good example of this approach can be found at www.internetnews.com.
One overall resource that may be useful is the new Public Affairs Council report on cyber advocacy. This survey of effective cyber-lobbying techniques offers insights into successful campaign models that integrate many of the elements discussed above. You can learn more at www.pac.org.
How? The Top Five Things for Effective Advocates to Remember
Number Five: The effective "advocate" is not just a "cyber-advocate" – the cyber part of the lobbying campaign must be integrated with offline action.
Number Four: The very nature of representative democracy means that members of Congress and their staff will ALWAYS ignore spam and irrelevant information. Messages from advocates outside the district or state, with no indication of a connection to the district or state, are essentially spam. This leads us to point number three.
Number Three: Volume does not equal effectiveness. One personal, thoughtful, well-argued e-mail or letter is more effective than a thousand postcards or petitions.
Number Two: Two-way communication is more effective than one-way communication. The effective advocate will focus on uses of the Internet to make it easier and more convenient for Members of Congress to interact with constituents. Instead of encouraging a one-way rant, try spending time engaging members through online chats, townhalls and the like. This is the wave of the future.
Number One: The Internet is a wonderful tool – but what you say is always more important than what tool you use to deliver the message.
The Internet holds great promise for enhancing citizen involvement in the political process. It gives interested people the ability to learn about issues, form an opinion, communicate with other like-minded individuals to strengthen the message, and, ultimately communicate with elected officials – either individually, or as part of a coordinated effort. However, as with all methods of communication and information gathering, there is a right way and a wrong way to use the Internet in efforts to influence policy. The rules for effective communication still apply – content still matters, messages must still be timely and relevant to the elected official, and knowing what you are talking about is still crucial.