There’s a lot going on in the political realm, but zeroing in on your raison d’être—your members—can help your association’s advocacy messaging stand out. Learn how the National Restaurant Association put this strategy into action by tapping into its grassroots core after the COVID-19 crisis hit.
It’s a strange time in a strange world, and that means there’s a lot of competition in the advocacy space at the moment. One way to stand out and score some key advocacy wins: Maintain a narrow focus on the people you serve—your members and others in your industry.
Mike Whatley, vice president of state and local affairs for the National Restaurant Association, says his group has leaned into that strategy in recent months in its effort to support restaurants deeply affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
So the big challenge becomes: How do you break through that noise? How do you make an impact?
“To a certain extent, every single industry has been impacted negatively, for the most part, and so everyone’s out there talking about it—everyone’s out there with an ask of government,” Whatley says. “So the big challenge becomes: How do you break through that noise? How do you make an impact?”
The answer for the restaurant association came down to grassroots advocacy: By engaging its network of restaurant workers around the country who could speak to their experiences on the ground, Whatley and his team were able to build an effective case to government leaders.
Last fall, the association began work on the Restaurants Act, which emerged as a focal point for collective action during the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, drawing responses from more than 100,000 people in the restaurant industry. As major stimulus bills began to move through Congress, the association took a prominent place on the White House’s COVID-19 recovery task force.
Whatley notes that restaurateurs are usually busy, leaving them with little time to devote to advocacy. But the pandemic created a rare opportunity to engage the grassroots—even if the situation that led to it was unfortunate.
“They’re in the type of business where you might not necessarily be in front of your computer for long periods of time. You’re in the restaurant, you’re working, you’re out there on the go,” he says. “Battling COVID, especially in March, a lot of them happened to be in front of their computer because restaurants were closed, and so there was a little more time for advocacy.”
The mixture of timing, messaging, and response allowed the industry to gain advocacy momentum at just the right time.
Keeping the Light on Your Members
Given the constant demands on lawmakers’ attention amid COVID-19, narrowing your approach can help your industry stand out and can keep the grassroots motivated, Whatley says. He offers these tactics for staying focused:
Share real stories from real people. This is all about quality over quantity. “I don’t think just a record volume of emails is going to get you there,” Whatley says. “I think it’s having emails that are stories of individuals happening, and then explaining the impact of COVID to them, combining that with really useful statistics.”
Keep your advocates up to date. It’s one thing to draw your members’ interest to grassroots participation, but it’s another to keep them involved—a challenge the National Restaurant Association is facing now that restaurants are reopening. Whatley says it’s important to offer periodic updates and to avoid bombarding your members with requests to take action, which he warns can dull the effectiveness of your communications over time. Working with the association’s executive vice president, Sean Kennedy, Whatley has been helping to produce a series of 90-second video clips discussing what’s happening in Washington, with a focus on the restaurant industry. “I think having that, the advocates understand what’s happening in the process and aren’t just constantly being asked, ‘Take action, take action, take action,’” he says.
Tell your grassroots something they aren’t hearing elsewhere. Another benefit of the 90-second clips, Whatley says, is that they offer information that members may not be hearing from mainstream media outlets. While TV networks are likely to cover issues relevant to your industry, the coverage often lacks industry-specific information that may be essential to understanding the issue. “None of those sites are going to explain to you as a restaurant operator, or a different industry such as a gym operator, ‘What does it mean for me?’” Whatley says. “So having that content is what makes it valuable to your advocates.”