March (thus far!) has been a month of summits — the Minnesota Bicycle Summit happened March 5, the National Bicycle Summit is happening right now, and several Transportation and Tourism Summits occurred in Minnesota. All have focused on various forms of advocacy in various venues.
I’ve been to a few of these events this year and in years past. They tend to be interesting, especially those emphasizing citizen advocacy. And like many advocacy programs, they have a number of messaging challenges and conflicts. As a result, I’ve come up with some observations on how to improve them all.
- Can the histronics. Okay, so we all get it: The situation is urgent. All the exclamation points on earth won’t make that more apparent than a simple listing of facts. Especially for organizations like the League of American Bicyclists, every year is the most urgent year ever lately. Now, knowing the facts about federal transportation bills, they may have a point. But as marketing messages goes, it leads to panic fatigue. Public relations pros will tell you: Organizations can get stuck in panic mode, and that’s a really inefficient use of resources in the long term.
- Balance the pep rally. Every advocacy event is more pep rally than educational session. The people at the top select speakers and sessions based on organizational belief and goals. This is fine. The events are intended to fire up attendees for direct action advocacy. That is also fine. But sometimes the pep rally elements leave attendees unready to speak to representatives. Attendees need info to deal with potential pushback and cross-examination from those they are advocating to. Who is opposed to this legislative item, and why? Knowing this matters, and can help a citizen speak up against cash-rich special interests.
- Guide the novices. At an event like the Minnesota Bicycle Summit, one of the biggest changes from 2011 to 2012 was BikeMN having the resources to make legislative meeting appointments on behalf of attendees. In 2011, they provided info to people on how to make the appointments; most didn’t and were baffled by the process. In 2012, BikeMN assembled the resources to make the appointments, resulting in less bafflement and more hob-nobbing with legislators. Groups putting together legislative visits and meetings should also consider making maps of legislative offices (and directions from gathering points!) available to attendees, either pre-event or at the event. Make the process confusion-proof so that people can focus on their message.
- Help attendees tailor their pitches. The dream is that everyone can walk in with a similar ask and make it work. The reality is that different legislators react to different things, and a lot of that is a product of their territory. An urban representative and a rural one look at many issues of transportation and funding differently. Suburban reps are also a product of their representation area. I’ve found that for where I live (
darkestAnoka County), my best bet is really to lean on my status as a working mother of two, belong to a church, support cycling and alternative transport. I’m not an urban male in spandex. I have a graduate degree, I shop at CostCo, and I have been known to bike to church with my kid in a trailer. This narrative helps as a wedge with the people who represent my district.
Drinking the Kool-Aid is going to be a big part of any advocacy event. But to be truly successful, these events have to make it easier to administer the Kool-Aid to the skeptical. And that’s where the biggest leaps are yet to be made. Event management and planning is huge and complex, and I absolutely appreciate the challenges everyone who puts on these summits and events face. The best reward for facing these challenges is positive impact on the societal issues they are tackling.