National Capital Chapter

A Whole New World: Advocating When a Pandemic Makes In-Person Impossible

By Matthew Wright and Anthony Shop

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

Many associations and trade groups—perhaps yours—conduct advocacy fly-in events during the spring season. In-person meetings with members of Congress and their staff are critical for advancing policy – research consistently shows this is the most influential type of advocacy contact. Hundreds and even thousands of staff hours are dedicated toward planning these fly-in events, in order to advance a policy agenda and cultivate new champions.

But in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and “social distancing” restrictions, associations and trade groups have canceled or postponed advocate fly-in events. Now they are scrambling to identify ways to engage fly-in participants from wherever they reside.

Physical distancing to prevent the spread of a virus shouldn’t prevent your supporters from civic participation, because now more than ever associations and trade groups need constituent engagement to promote their policy agendas. There are a number of ways to bridge the physical distance through social connectivity.

Start simple. Phone calls, emails and tweets directed to lawmakers remain effective lines of communication. These messages help lawmakers and their staffs learn more about constituent priorities and take those into account for policymaking. Phone calls can be directed to lawmakers’ in-district or Capitol offices during normal business hours.

Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, calls this the “dial-in fly-in,” and recommends providing your advocates both VoIP and cell/landline options to relieve stress on the telecommunications system. But sometimes constituents can’t advocate during business hours: luckily, they can send emails and tweets at any time.

The alternative face-to-face meeting. In recent weeks, more lawmakers and their staffs have turned to video conference platforms, such as Zoom , Skype, and Google Hangout, to meet with constituent stakeholders. Schedule a video conference much like you would an in-person meeting. Some offices may prefer using their own video conference platforms, while others may defer to yours. You may even be able to include advocates who would not have been able to visit Washington, D.C. in the first place.

Kristin St. John, Deputy Director of Grassroots Advocacy at the National Association of Community Health Centers, reminded us to give advocates a clear rallying cry, such as: “We Are So Close: Let’s Pass Long-Term Funding!” She has long engaged advocates across the country to connect virtually with lawmakers–even inspiring advocates with Spotify playlists, such as one for their National Call-In Day that features Adele’s “Hello” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Recreate the fly-in experience—virtually. “While it may be tough to do in light of a cancellation, work to keep your registrants motivated and in the loop,” suggests Joe Franco, Vice President of Grassroots at LeadingAge. Provide a congressional calendar for attendees to show them that there is work to be done until your next lobby day. If you had a fly-in prep webinar scheduled, keep the date to do an overall advocacy training In lieu of an in-person fly-in.

As you transition your in-person event to virtual advocacy meetings, start by conducting a webinar for your participants–much like an in-person session during which you would educate them on the policy issues and train them on how to authentically convey messages to lawmakers.

Schedule video conference meetings for your participants to connect with their lawmakers. When video conferencing isn’t possible or to further complement those meetings, encourage your participants to leverage other video tools, such as Countable and Storyvine, to record their advocacy messages and share them with lawmakers. These videos also can be repurposed to share on social media, in order to further increase awareness on the policy issue and engage stakeholders in other social networks to support your cause.

Think out of the box. Now, more than ever, we must get creative. The Association for Accessible Medicines recently launched an Instagram filter experience to educate policymakers about the 10th anniversary of biosimilars. Even after in-person meetings resume, associations and trade groups will have to step up their games to cut through the noise in this fast-paced world.

The unprecedented events we are living through have touched us all, personally and professionally. Although it feels discouraging to cancel your fly-in event, now is the time to regroup and rise to the occasion. Now, more than ever, Congress needs to hear from your advocates before enacting public policies that will dramatically affect our lives in the short- and long-term.

This blog originally appeared on LinkedIn.

About the Authors

Matthew Wright is advocacy and outreach director for the Children’s Hospital Association and executive vice president of The Grassroots Professional Network.


Anthony Shop is chairman of the National Digital Roundtable and co-founder of Social Driver.