Leading Through the New Advocacy Landscape

Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, Donald Trump has changed the way campaigns work. How should associations change in response?

The odd, unpredictable nature of political campaigns has a way of making reporters look dumb. So I knew it was important to tread carefully while I was working on the cover story for the latest Associations Now about how associations are handling government relations ahead of the 2016 election. One theme of the piece was that real-estate mogul and reality-TV figure Donald J. Trump’s presence in the Republican presidential field over the summer would likely reshape how associations do advocacy. That seemed valid enough in mid-September, when I was writing the piece. But would it be true in early December, when it ran?

I hedged a bit. “As of press time, he’s seemingly girded with industrial-strength armor that repels controversies that would stop any other candidate,” I wrote.


Are you capable of mobilizing members who care about your mission enough to speak out about it on a regular basis?

Presidential campaigns remain unpredictable—Dr. Ben Carson, the GOP presidential frontrunner in many polls a month ago, now has all the appeal of updating your MySpace account. But even if Trump’s candidacy sinks like a stone tomorrow, it’s established a number of new rules that associations need to consider responding to. Provocations aren’t necessarily damaging. Twitter noise has clout—or, at least, it can be leveraged as such. And responding with facts isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk tactic.

Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, pointed out that Trump’s rhetoric about illegal immigration made the issue top-of-mind for Americans, but not necessarily in ways AILA would prefer. Big talk about a beautiful wall at the U.S.-Mexico border is “talking about immigration” in a sense, but it’s a crummy starting point for a policy discussion. “One real challenge of having such extreme rhetoric about immigration being debated now publicly in the context of presidential election is that real policy solutions are frequently missed in that conversation,” he said.

The effective response, for AILA and other associations, is to stay strategic and avoid knee-jerk responses to every provocation. More precisely, the messaging from the association ought to be so established and consistent that they can blunt the provocations when they come. Association GR consultant Amy Showalter points to the effectiveness of organizations like the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in mobilizing online responses to articles that speak to their issues, positively or negatively; they’ve had volunteers lined up for years ready to speak out. You may not have the budget of the NRA or the Chamber, but Showalter’s point stands even for smaller organizations that lobby. Are you capable of mobilizing members who care about your mission enough to speak out about it on a regular basis, now that the campaign cycle is relentless and thick with disinformation? If you can’t, what’s going on with either your mission or how it connects with your mission that’s standing the way?

It’s a notoriously tricky task: Earlier this year a CQ Roll Call study of member engagement in association advocacy painted a dispiriting picture. Three-fourths of the association and advocacy professionals polled said it was at least somewhat difficult to get members involved in GR activities. And three-fourths also said that getting members involved is difficult unless there’s a timely issue, such as a bill in the statehouse or Congress.

That lack of a sense of urgency may be the most important thing an association needs to fight against. When your message is only getting out when a bill affecting your industry is coming to a vote, it may be too late. Last week, Katie Bascuas wrote about how the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association has built a database of health statistics that’s searchable by legislative district. It’s a smart move on a number of levels. It’s public-facing, and as such engages people beyond VHHA’s membership. For VHHA, it’s an always-on tool that it can use to explain its members’ needs to legislators. And for legislators, it clarifies issues in a straightforward way. It’s a way for the association to argue for itself no matter which way the political winds blow.

It may be that a year from now we’ll look back at the Trump surge as a quirky outlier in the history of electoral politics. But if recent years have suggested anything, it’s that Trumpishness is likely to be a factor in American politics for some time to come. Setting a clear strategy for getting your message out, and finding members to amplify it, will be an increasingly important step.

How does your association leverage its members to promote its advocacy message? Share your experiences in the comments.

Donald Trump has created new wrinkles for advocacy strategies. (iStock Editorial/thinkstock)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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