No Silver Bullet? Find the Silver BBs for Legislative Success!
6 Tips for Building Effective Grasstops Campaigns
Delaware’s U.S. Senator Tom Carper frequently comments that there is no silver bullet for legislative success, but there are “a lot of silver BBs.”
This holds as true for those of us involved in advocating public policy as it does for those setting it. Rarely can one campaign tactic guarantee results on Capitol Hill, but the right combination of strategies and voices increases the likelihood of securing a bill’s passage.
That’s where a well built, well run grasstops advocacy program comes in.
Grasstops programs mobilize influential constituents who “have a legislator’s ear.” Each performing as a metaphorical silver BB, they relate key points about an issue to targeted officials. Taken together, their input can help heighten an issue’s priority level, provide 3rd party validation of traditional lobbying communications, and supply the support necessary to garner a favorable vote.
Unlike a “scattershot” approach, however, grasstops advocacy delivers finely honed messages from precisely the audiences a particular legislator heeds most. Advocates may include formal and informal advisors, close friends, campaign donors, government and party officials, business and community leaders, and others with access to the target. Their messages can be delivered directly to the official and senior staff members, as well as through local earned media.
Just as valuable as their impact is the intelligence these well placed advocates gather during their interactions with legislators in the home environment. This information, which often differs from legislators’ statements in Washington, can help refine strategy and messaging across a comprehensive issue campaign.
Grasstops advocacy is clearly a powerful force. But programs must be designed and managed professionally or an organization risks hindering, rather than advancing, its policy objectives. Following are some tips for getting the most out of grasstops on your key issues:
#1 Think outside the Beltway.
Grasstops operates in the legislator’s home arena. First, determine if it’s an appropriate component to incorporate. Are the legislators you’re trying to reach open to hearing from local constituents, or are they too entrenched on the issue or too attentive to national considerations to take heed? Will your message resonate back home and compel advocates to get involved?
Answering these questions on a target-by-target basis is essential in selecting districts and states in which to operate and synchronizing the campaign with the local environment.
#2 Strategize globally, but tailor locally.
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to grasstops organizing. It’s normal and expected to develop template campaign plans and umbrella messaging at the national level, and local efforts should certainly dovetail with any Washington-based lobbying or other activities. But grasstops approaches designed from 30,000 feet must then be tailored to the legislator, the district’s political environment, available allies, and a myriad of other factors on the ground.
Any successful grasstops campaign will be built on research and more research—all conducted in the community by reliable, well connected field operatives. In many ways, these programs revolve around access—to party leaders, major donors, business executives, community voices, etc.—so vet potential field representatives carefully.
#3 Get ahead of the opposition.
The majority of grasstops efforts are implemented in the 11th hour. Not only is it difficult to mobilize supporters in time for a vote only a few weeks away, such quick turnaround efforts are generally thrown together inefficiently, and thus are much more expensive than higher impact programs benefitting from a longer lead time.
A stand-out campaign, therefore, can be had simply by starting early. Allocating time to build a foundation means field teams can conduct advance planning, educate key influential advocates in depth, build a drumbeat of support for your organization’s stance, and generate local media coverage to capture attention—all while the other side is still sleeping. When the vote looms, a final crescendo of activity can reinforce this support and win the day.
In many cases, issue priorities are visible months or years in advance—even if the precise legislative vehicle is still TBD. Whenever possible, organizations should take advantage of these opportunities to build a grasstops base and involve advocates while legislation is being crafted. You may even find that many individuals share your organization’s perspective across a range of issues and can become reliable allies, ready for reactivation when the last minute is all you’ve got.
#4 Make the right connections.
As nice as it would be to say that one major donor, two business leaders, and a handful of community organizations always adds up to success, there is no single grasstops recipe to follow. Each legislator lives in a different political reality and surrounds him/herself with a different cadre of advisors and influencers.
As a result, the most effective grasstops efforts rely on highly experienced on-the-ground consultants who know the local players personally, understand the various pressures on the legislator, and can determine how best to martial available forces to achieve success.
#5 Be flexible.
Each campaign has its own ebb and flow. For example, prominent media coverage can suddenly spotlight an issue and provide an opportunity. By the same token, a crisis on a different front can sideline even the most important topic. Similarly, legislators’ stances will evolve in their own time.
The best grasstops programs are specifically designed to respond to such developments, switching up strategy, messaging, and communications tactics to continuously maximize effectiveness and impact.
#6 Dot the “i” in compliance.
Before embarking on a grasstops program, educate yourself about all applicable federal and/or state lobbying laws. For example, some areas demand registration and budget disclosures before engaging in advocacy efforts. Overlook such requirements at your peril.
But protection from blowback requires more than legal fine-tuning. Ensure your grasstops partner(s) employs the highest standards for integrity and quality. Prospective advocates should be fully informed on the issue and only genuine, articulate supporters—those capable of delivering the most effective messages—should be involved.
Politics being what it is, no advocacy campaign can guarantee a win. But if you follow these recommendations and deploy your silver BBs effectively, you’ll have a good shot at grasstops and legislative success.