Lobbying Congress online

Reaching that very special audience of Congressional lawmakers and their staffs (well, they think they’re special) requires just as much of a mix of communications...

Reaching that very special audience of Congressional lawmakers and their staffs (well, they think they’re special) requires just as much of a mix of communications as reaching any other audience, said speakers at a recent US Chamber of Commerce event in DC called “Winning in a Web World: Online Strategies for Grassroots Advocacy.”

Alan Rosenblatt, executive director of the Internet Advocacy Center, compared effective, integrated communications to members of Congress with the findings of Sir Charles Sherrington’s research on animal nervous systems in the early 20th century. Sherrington found that while a certain level of stimulation of a dog’s nerves provoked the dog to scratch, stimulation at more than one point at much lower levels – subthreshold levels, as it were – could provoke the same or greater reaction.

“Now, I won’t call members of Congress dogs, but when [your group] reaches out to activists, think about strategies that integrate -that reinforce each other,” Rosenblatt said. “You’re prodding them and getting that repetition.”

Stimulation in the form of e-mail, hand-written letters, personal visits, advertising, and other forms of communications all help reinforce messages being sent to legislators, whether they like that simulation or not. Indeed, communications to lawmakers’ offices often seem overwhelming to the staffers that receive them and must respond.

Alex Treadway, director of digital media at National Journal Group, provided a quick outline of daily media fed to Congressional offices. Each staffer receives some 200 inbound e-mails a day, he said, 20 RSS feeds, 30 phone calls, and more. No wonder then that Congressional staff members actually look for excuses to disregard inbound communications rather than respond.

Various speakers at the event said the key, not surprisingly, is to look for creative ways to gain staffers’ attention. Adfero Group, for instance, earlier this year organized a “virtual march” campaign for the Chamber of Commerce, which sought to curb support for a House bill that would permit union organizers to “card check” employees who are voting on whether to unionize.

Participants in the “march” – generally businesses around the country opposed to unions – created avatars that appeared on a specially designed Web site on the appointed day, timed to coincide with a vote on the bill and with e-mail correspondence to members from the avatars. Complemented with ad buys on the Drudge Report, radio spots on local stations around the country, and links to the Web site from political blogs intrigued by the campaign such as Townhall.com, the Chamber said the virtual march didn’t stop the legislation from passing, but it may well have reduced the number of members that voted for it, helping make the bill much less likely to wend its way through both sides of Congress and into law.

But how effective was it really? Chad Mitchell, director of the Chamber’s office of grassroots and advocacy programs, said he doesn’t really know, apart from anecdotal evidence. Speakers at the event agreed that measurement of online lobbying campaigns, just as it does in the rest of the public affairs and PR world, remains far from a science.

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