Issue Advocacy: What it is and How to Do It Successfully

By Rachel Bledsoe

A few years ago I was tasked with preparing a presentation about issue advocacy. It felt necessary to kick things off by defining what “issue advocacy” is. Below is what I came up with:

Issue advocacy is the means by which organizations educate and inform decision makers, community leaders, and the general public about the benefits of supporting their position. 

I was proud of this definition at the time, but looking back, I could have easily cut this down to the following shorter and more precise definition:

Issue advocacy is public relations for an issue rather than for a product or company.

Before entering into an issue advocacy campaign, you will most likely find yourself at a crossroads: a critical policy or social issue has crossed your path and either through hire or passion, you now need to secure the support of others – particularly decision makers.

To accomplish this goal, there are four critical components you must deploy: Define Your Goal, Develop Your Message, Build a Coalition of Support and Take Your Message to the Public.

Rather than dissect each of these (seemingly self-explanatory) components individually, I want to focus on the two keys elements that will distinguish any SUCCESSFUL issue advocacy campaign.

1. Stay Relevant: 

A colleague of mine recently attended a luncheon on social media strategies. A significant portion of the discussion focused on why it is critical to be engaged in social media. This was puzzling. Today it goes without saying that anyone interested in impacting change must be utilizing social media platforms. And yet, it was not long ago that I overheard PR experts describing Twitter as “a fad.” Obviously, social media is now a must. Ensuring that you are staying relevant by using the various new tools at your disposal, as daunting as they may seem initially, is critical to any campaign.

One example that immediately comes to mind is The Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) recent social media logo takeover. To build awareness around two critical Supreme Court decisions in 2013, the HRC called on followers and social media users to change their profile pictures to the HRC “Marriage Equality” logo. Politics aside, this was one of the most successful social media advocacy campaigns to date, garnering the most successful promoted tweet in Twitter history with a 19.8% engagement rate.

2. Look for Unconventional Opportunities:

The second key to successfully advocating for an issue is looking for unconventional, or even seemingly unrelated, opportunities to work your message into the larger dialogue. This means staying on top of current news, events and social trends and capitalizing on every possible occasion to make your case.

Two years ago, RunSwitch was working alongside both industry and advocates to support legislation that would make Epi-pens (epinephrine auto-injectors) available to Kentucky schools. As many know all too well, anaphylaxis is a life-threatening reaction brought about by contact with an allergen. As allergies to foods like peanuts continue to rise, it became abundantly critical that school nurses and teachers have Epi-pens readily available to combat an emergency anaphylactic episode, should one occur.

Of course, when we sought out to push this policy change, the lack of Epi-pens in schools was not a hot topic of conversation. However, health care was. At the time, Kentucky was overhauling its Medicaid system, expanding it and implementing other aspects of the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, Kentucky lawmakers were looking for a good, relatively non-controversial piece of health care legislation they could get behind. Through media outreach, including advocate and provider op-eds and letters-to-the-editor, we were able to work this issue into the overall healthcare conversation – ultimately making it a priority for legislators. The bill passed and now Kentucky schools can receive prescriptions for Epi-pens at a reduced cost.

Before you hunker down to develop your strategy under the four tenets of issue advocacy campaigns, remember that staying relevant to your audience and looking for unique opportunities to push out your message – are necessary to making any issue advocacy campaign work, and work well.

Rachel Bledsoe is an Account Director at RunSwitch PR. She specializes in issue advocacy, alliance development, media relations, grassroots and grasstops mobilizing, and public relations. 

Posted on March 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

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