Congress and Social Distancing: The Case for Integrated Advocacy

The Capitol is now closed to the public, congressional offices have been scaled back to essential personnel and, as soon as the COVID-19 relief package is finished, all members of Congress will head back to their states and districts.

Given the condensed congressional schedule ahead of the November elections, many companies, associations and organizations had planned to maximize March and April for fly-ins, receptions and fundraisers. Now, Beltway events as far out as June are being canceled, postponed and rescheduled.

Despite all the closures and cancellations, there is still a great deal to be done. Must-pass legislation to fund the government and federal programs will need to move; vulnerable members need legislative victories to tout on the campaign trail; and our country will need policy solutions to address a possible recession. In other words, coronavirus may have changed the playbook, but the game is very much still on.

The response to coronavirus has been defined by one key element: communication. Some will argue that there has been too much communication or too little, that the message has been far too passive or too alarmist. This applies as much to the administration’s response as it does corporate America, local communities, schools, hospitals, the travel industry and others.

This comes as industries and companies struggle with how to communicate their message to Congress when our elected officials are operating a virtual office. And for those who have relied on shoe-leather lobbying alone in Washington, they may quickly be forced to explore new modes of advocacy.

Today, every good advocacy strategy has three pillars – government relations, communications and digital media. These pillars support each other in a way that encourages more targeted and insightful approaches – reaching people where they are with the message they want to hear.

There is perhaps no better time to underscore the value of a 360-degree advocacy model than during this current crisis. While a deep reach to members of Congress is extremely valuable, when House and Senate offices are closed, the ability to quickly pivot to social media, press and digital advertising is a boost to any cause. 

The coronavirus has created a constantly evolving landscape, and those with a robust toolkit of tactics and skillsets will weather the storm better than those without. In lieu of face-to-face congressional meetings, those with Washington interests should explore op-eds on the pages of a member’s local newspaper, consider a social media campaign targeting congressional staff back in the district or state, and think about penning a thoughtful LinkedIn article that could be bolstered through online advertising.

Case in point: a week ago I had a client set to appear on a popular cable news program. The interview could not have gone better and was all set to roll at the top of the news hour. And then came the dreaded words, Breaking News; the segment got bumped for the President’s press conference.

And here is when the other communications pillars come into play. Turning lemons into lemonade, I quickly pivoted from a media relations strategy to a digital advertising campaign – securing the segment from the producer, pushing it out over social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), putting ad dollars behind the social posts to reach a larger audience, and getting the show to tweet the segment out from their Twitter account.

This is just one of many examples that have crept up in recent weeks, and certainly each day of this virus will bring new problems to solve. There is no knowing when life will get back to “normal” – and it’s likely that some things will never be the same. But Congress and the administration will and must continue to execute their respective agendas. Companies, associations and organizations that embrace a comprehensive advocacy strategy will have a leg up when it comes to effectively communicating their interests in Washington, in-district or online.    

Emily Pappas is a senior vice president at Cogent Strategies where she specializes in strategic communications. Emily is an expert at designing and executing local and national media campaigns that influence Washington’s top policymakers. For Emily’s complete bio, click here.