It’s Better with Friends – Why and how coalition strategies can make sense for successful advocacy

By Missi Tessier

Great things can happen in federal policy when fierce competitors come to the table to commit to working together toward a common goal. Successful coalition advocacy efforts over the years have strengthened our country’s commitment to biomedical and basic science research, informed consumers about threats to their privacy, kept new technologies affordable, brought new medicines and cures to the market and helped modernize America’s transportation system. 

As a consultant/participant in some of these efforts and a cheering bystander in others, I’ve witnessed the power of harnessing an assortment of stakeholders into a movement for change. And it’s great when it works. Seeing galvanized and mobilized advocates take a chance on new tactics is energizing; seeing changed outcomes after years of defeat is rewarding.

As companies and associations continue to sort out this divided government, it’s worth thinking about the types of public affairs initiatives that could benefit from collaborative strategies. With decades of experience in the kind of creative “cat-herding,” Cogent Strategies has a few tips to offer for groups contemplating coalition strategies:

  • Don’t forget the PR and digital toolkit. Chances are, if a group has not been successful pushing an agenda using traditional shoe leather lobbying alone, the coalition’s new strategy shouldn’t start and end with Hill visits. Well-deployed strategic communication strategies will elevate an issue and provide air cover for lobbyists visiting members and staff on the Hill. Videos, coordinated social media posts and local op-eds can go a long way toward explaining an issue, educating an audience and advocating for change.
  • Take the time to listen. If a group has gone to all the trouble of organizing and funding a coalition effort, it needs to take the time to listen to all its members. While listening may be a dying art in Washington, time invested in hearing out all participants in a coalition – providing input into written materials, brainstorming political strategies and doing other valuable activities – will yield stronger advocacy and better outcomes. The truth is, if coalition members don’t feel informed and engaged, they are likely to become disengaged and leave the campaign behind.
  • BUT don’t use all the coalition’s time talking to itself. Yes, it’s important to listen to coalition partners (see above) but if the goal of the coalition is to educate and engage an outside audience, be sure that it remains the top priority. Far too many coalitions have succumbed to their own weight and lost opportunities to advocate as their members and consultants have drowned in internal coalition politics. Having a solid strategic plan that clearly defines roles and responsibilities, governance, metrics and deliverables can be helpful in keeping the coalition and its partners on task.
  • Find the line between common ground and vanilla. Bringing together a group of likeminded competitors can increase the chance for disagreement. But there is a fine line between finding common ground and over-generalizing or muting a message or “ask” just to appease coalition members. Developing a mission statement and guiding principles can help alleviate these pain points and ensure that the coalition stands for something that is clear and compelling.
  • Diversify. There’s a lot to be said for uniting an industry around a common issue but having the same people say the same thing only louder is rarely effective. Directing a chorus of allies – or even better, “strange bedfellows” – to articulate the impact of a policy will in turn capture the attention of a wider, more diverse audience. And allies don’t just have to be large national organizations. Coalitions that employ local, constituent voices – employees, chambers of commerce, businesses, public officials – can be equally if not more effective in raising awareness, particularly for the purposes of local and regional earned media.  
  • Take advantage of digital tools to find new champions and the best ways to reach them. Leveraging the new tools of the trade is even more important in this Congress with a record number of new members. Tools like social listening and legislative analytics can help uncover the forces – media outlets, stakeholders, fellow politicians – with the greatest influence over the members of Congress whom a coalition must reach as well as the messages that will drive them to act. In short, digital tools can take the guesswork out of advocacy so coalitions can hit the ground running faster and more effectively.      
  • Try new things. Maybe an issue hasn’t changed much over the years, but the paths to successful advocacy surely have. Sure, organizations are still running ads, but in an era when most people get their news online, a full-page ad in a marquee newspaper no longer carries the same value as it once did. Coalitions forming today must be aware that the tactics that worked even three to five years ago no longer carry water.

Coalition work can be many things – time-consuming, energizing, frustrating, collaborative – but it can also be extraordinarily successful if it taps into and amplifies the very best case that a united, coordinated group can muster. Today’s political climate requires smart, strategic thinking to achieve public policy goals; well-executed coalitions demonstrate to lawmakers that fierce competitors and their allies can find new ways forward for good ideas.

Missi Tessier has more than twenty years of experience leading public affairs campaigns. Missi’s specialties include message development, communications strategy, coalition management, media outreach and media training. Over the history of her career in consulting, Missi has advised coalitions advancing solar power, basic science research and pharmaceutical products, global financial services, higher education, defense and a variety of foundations and non-profits. For Missi’s complete bio, click here.