The most effective campaigns seen during the advocacy boom in the last year all have a common element: they create a sense of urgency. But how do you do that consistently without sounding shallow or shrill? After all, if everything is urgent, then nothing is urgent.
The answer is to focus on issues that best serve your constituency and to get creative with the tools available. Dozens of vital campaigns were launched during the pandemic as companies, associations and nonprofits rose up to protect themselves and their members. Many of those campaigns provide great lessons on how to communicate immediate need.
As policymakers continue to manage America’s recovery, from mask regulation and airline refunds to a whopping infrastructure bill, there will be a great deal of action in the weeks ahead. Government relations programs that can artfully communicate urgency will have the most success.
One of the best examples is Consumer Reports, the well-known nonprofit that focuses on consumer protection. Eager to champion safety, health and financial stability when the pandemic struck, it launched a comprehensive effort—an umbrella campaign that covered several issues and tactics under the hashtag #putpeoplefirst—that was both urgent and effective. The organization mobilized more than 44,000 people, sending more than 138,000 messages to policymakers last year—and it is still going. Here are some of the tactics they used.
1. Choose Issues That Resonate
Consumer Reports took up many important issues during the pandemic, but they struck a chord when they decided to fight for airline refunds. When COVID-19 shut down U.S. plane flights, Americans lost billions of dollars on tickets already purchased. Consumer Reports launched an aggressive campaign to help.
The travel issue was urgent because people needed their money in the face of a massive economic downturn. Americans filed nearly 90,000 complaints about refunds with the Department of Transportation in 2020. That’s 57 times higher than the previous year.
Of course, airlines had massive problems of their own as flights (and revenue) plummeted. They issued billions of dollars in refunds and billions more in travel vouchers. But frustrations ran high among consumers, many of whom struggled to get what they wanted from airlines. Consumer Reports put their constituency first, took up the fight and gave people plenty of creative ways to take action.
2. Prime Your Audience
Consumer Reports did not start right in with difficult requests. Instead, it eased its audience toward action. They began with issue-oriented education events such as Twitter chats and webinars. Experts answered questions on issues like safe shopping, protecting privacy on video calls and securing financial help. Consumer Reports also launched a petition aimed at Congress. All of this helped the organization build a relationship with its audience, give people information on important issues and prime them to take action later.
3. Give Supporters Compelling Options
To call attention to the airline issue, Consumer Reports ran a social media campaign asking people to take photos of themselves with a sign illustrating how much money they were owed and by which airline. The organization then amplified the pictures. The campaign tapped into people’s frustration, giving them something more to do than simply writing a letter. Scores of people participated.
“We wanted to put a face to the people who had lost money due to flight
cancellations, and we knew we needed to do something different to stand out,” an official at Consumer Reports told Phone2Action last year. “So, we took a leap of faith … and people answered our call. We received so many pictures that we were able to create collages by airline. So we promoted those on social media and tagged the airlines.”
That stood out. A picture of a stone-faced man holding a sign saying he’s owed $13,652, and many others like it, communicated urgency like few other tactics could.
4. Use Every Channel—Especially Social
Social media shares and amplification can do much to create a sense of urgency, because they allow an organization to reach beyond its email list and attract new supporters. In the weeks after COVID struck in the U.S., Consumer Reports grew its list of advocates by 123 percent. The Consumer Reports airline campaign, which used the hashtags #RefundPassengers and #PutPeopleFirst, helped the organization get more than 3,600 shares on Facebook.
While the organization used social for outreach, it did not stop there. It used email when communicating with decision makers because that’s what the government prefers. Webinars helped consumers understand their rights (one drew more than 700 people). Aggressive digital campaigns supported legislation. Consumer Reports even co-hosted a digital press conference highlighting a U.S. senator who introduced a bill that would have ensured airline refunds.
“We were definitely running lots of different initiatives, but we realized that we could tie everything together under the “Put People First” theme so the efforts wouldn’t appear disjointed,” the Consumer Reports official said. “We also need to meet people where they are. People might not be able to donate or make a phone call, but they might be able to attend a virtual webinar. It was important to offer many options.”
5. Compelling Language is Critical
When it comes to campaigns, not all language has the same impact. Some words and phrases are far more likely to drive action. A review of 2020 campaigns in Phone2Action’s State of Advocacy report showed that those with the most activity used words like “urge,” “critical,” “immediate,” and “unprecedented.” Those with lower activity used language such as, “consider joining us” and “ask you to support.”
A Consumer Reports email urging supporters to call their senators about a COVID relief bill last year said, “this is a critical moment for the future of our nation—and the future of so many people in your community.” It was followed by a button labeled, “Yes, I’ll make a call.” The email generated more than 1,400 calls to Congress—all in the first five minutes after it was sent.
Organizations that use text messaging, an excellent tool for rapid response and creating urgency, often start their dispatches in caps. Some examples include: “VICTORY: The Supreme Court ruled…” or “BREAKING: Your lawmaker is…” or even, “URGENT: Please call your congressman now…”
6. Be Persistent—Don’t Give Up
Just because an issue is urgent now does not mean it loses its urgency next week—or even next year. Consumer Reports doggedly pursued the issue of airline refunds and vouchers throughout 2020 and into 2021, because the issue continues to impact consumers. Many travel vouchers issued last year had “use by” dates that come due this year. On May 10, two U.S. senators asked airlines to eliminate expiration dates for pandemic-related flight vouchers or issue cash refunds. They asked airlines to respond before the end of the month. Consumer Reports is again active, collecting stories from advocates who are impacted in order to push for cash refunds.
“Sharing your story helps Consumer Reports learn more about what is happening to real people,” they told supporters. “We use this information to explain consumer problems to the public, the media and policymakers.”
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