The former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama sees a broken DC political culture. But he says he believes associations can get their message heard despite the fractures.
Ask Josh Earnest about his toughest day on the job and he’ll tell you about one of his final ones. The day after the 2016 presidential election, he says, the West Wing of the White House—where he was President Barack Obama’s press secretary—was stunned and uncertain after Donald J. Trump’s victory. “Everybody who had spent years in the White House working to advance [Obama’s] agenda came face to face with the reality that that agenda was likely to be rolled back,” he says.
Positive reinforcement is just as valuable and just as influential.
Even so, Earnest was (and is) an optimist about politics, and he recalls that on that day, his goal was to mirror the president’s demeanor—open, calm, and supportive of the American democratic process. The tone at the top, he says, is important “not just for the way the public views an institution, but the way that people who are part of that institution choose to conduct themselves as well,” he says. “That’s why that kind of leadership is so important.”
If you sense a message about the current presidential administration in that comment, well, you wouldn’t be wrong; these days, Earnest serves as an NBC News political analyst who often criticizes the current presidency. But he also speaks out on ways that organizations can break through partisan gridlock to get through to legislators. (Earlier this month he delivered the keynote address at ASAE Government Relations Symposium.) And he offered a few tips for organizations that are concerned that the current D.C. political culture stifles progress.
- Hard facts still matter more than “fake news.” Despite all the rhetoric about ginned-up stories manipulating government, Earnest says legislators still crave hard numbers and clear facts when they make decisions about how they’ll vote. “Every member of Congress and the members of staff, who are often taking those meetings, want to understand why this issue or this particular agenda is relevant to the constituents of that member of Congress,” he says. “The most effective way to be persuasive is to be able to marshal some evidence and to make a coherent argument about the rationality and wisdom of the position you’re advocating.”
- Stay engaged with your base—but look beyond it. Earnest advocates for a “reinforced, constantly updated link to your members,” informing them of legislative issues and current challenges. If you want proof of the success of that strategy, he says, look no further than the current occupant of the White House. “Trump has put a priority on communicating with his base, and that has served him fairly well politically,” he says. But a glance at Trump’s current poll numbers will also show you that appealing exclusively to your base has limited impact. “It’s important for associations to recognize that lesson too, to make sure they don’t overlook the opportunities they have to reach out to people who are not members, to communicate with them about why they should care about the agenda that they’re working hard to promote,” he says.
- The medium matters less than the message. Both are important, of course—Obama was notable for his willingness to engage with non-mainstream media outlets, from Marc Maron’s WTF podcast to Zach Galifianakis’ cable-access-show parody Between Two Ferns. Earnest himself points to Obama taking the reins of the White House Instagram account during a 2015 Alaska visit to speak out about climate change. But when it comes to building grassroots engagement among members, Earnest recommends a broad mix of activities instead of singling out one or two. “Even in the aftermath of an election in which so many of the basic precepts of politics appeared to be upended, members of Congress are responsive to the preferences and occasionally the pressures of their constituents,” he says. “It is important for constituents, if they have a strong view, to call a member of Congress, to send them an email, to appear at a town-hall meeting or district office. To the extent that associations can enlist the support or the activism of their members, that’s only going to benefit them in the legislative process.”
- Stay positive. Nobody likes working under a constant cloud of criticism, and that’s as true for legislators as much as anybody else. That doesn’t mean associations should hold back on criticizing those legislators when they make decisions that run counter to an association’s mission. But Earnest suggests that those associations too often neglect to praise a legislator when they support its mission. “It can be effective to thank a member of Congress, and to mobilize constituents … to thank them for doing something they approve of. That kind of positive reinforcement is just as valuable and just as influential,” he says. And in gridlocked times, it may be the best way for changes to be made. “Once [associations] see evidence of willingness on the part of a member of Congress to step out of their partisan corner and seek compromise, it’s important that member recognize or at least feel the appreciation for doing so,” he says. “That should be the priority—not just to offer public criticisms of those members of Congress who are not supporting your agenda, but looking for opportunities to compliment those members who are in support of your agenda. Particularly members of Congress who are taking a risk to do so.”
What does your association do to engage members and nonmembers in your advocacy activities, and what strategies have been successful? Share your experiences in the comments.