With lawmakers at home, "outside-in" PR matters more than ever

As the saying goes, all politics is local.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It's an old adage that if you want to reach a member of Congress, praise or thank them in their hometown newspaper.

Newspapers around the country may be struggling, but they (and their local TV, radio and web-based counterparts) are more important than ever when trying to reach members who are at home for COVID-19 reasons.

And just because members of Congress are at home doesn't mean they aren't working. The regular appropriations process is still on track and other must-pass legislation is scheduled through the remainder of the year.

So while walking the halls of Congress was the go-to strategy prior to coronavirus, moving forward it's most effective to make your case in a member's district or state using the local, personal voices of voters.

This "outside-in" public relations has been put to the test these past few months to shed light on businesses in need of stimulus funding. I recently used the tactic for a national association worried that the businesses it represents will close because of the pandemic.

By connecting local media with local businesses, and supplementing their reporting with national survey data and policy asks, I gave the industry's concerns a local, personal touch.

The result was a blitz of stories from around the U.S., including hits from San Francisco, New Orleans, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle and Orlando. Coverage by the Associated Press, the Hill and Fast Company, among others, added to the chorus.

Those stories became collateral for approaching policymakers, who could clearly see the effect of the crisis on businesses in their own states and districts. Ultimately, with the help of this integrated public affairs strategy, the industry was allocated billions of dollars in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that was signed into law at the end of March.

The outside-in strategy  is effective even when there isn't a crisis. It can bring an issue to life in a local and compelling way, particularly when overlaid with national statistics that show the breadth and depth of a problem.

The more old-fashioned version is the classic letter-writing campaign, either from the grassroots or from the so-called "grasstops." When dozens, hundreds or thousands of citizen advocates write members of Congress, it demonstrates a swell of support that often will be noticed.

The difference between a PR-led, media-focused campaign and a grassroots letter-writing campaign is that the former offers both elevation and validation. When you leverage local media, you elevate the issue and expand the audience which helps identify allies. Coverage in the local media also provides validation that the issue matters to the community. Lawmakers pay attention to those signals.

With Congress in and out of session throughout the spring and summer, now is the perfect time to collect and hone local, personal stories that may feed into the next round of stimulus funding and future legislation.

When policymakers hear from voters in their districts, they tend to pay attention. As the saying goes, all politics are local.

Will Bohlen is a senior vice president at Cogent Strategies, an integrated media relations, government relations and digital advocacy firm in Washington, D.C.

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