“It feels like a sprint,” said Margaret Taylor, director of global public affairs at AT&T. She’s talking about the start of the state legislative sessions each January. And when it comes to 2020, she’s not wrong.
Lawmakers in 44 states will hold legislative sessions next year, considering thousands of bills between January and June. Add to that congressional action and a massive election that will determine control of the White House, Congress, governorships and state legislatures and it adds up to an overwhelming amount of activity.
Organizations that prepare in advance will have an edge when the action starts.
That was the goal of our latest webinar, Getting Ready For State Legislative Sessions In 2020, where Taylor was joined by Christine Newman, assistant director at the University of Washington Alumni Association, and Kirstin Brockenborough, policy communications specialist at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, on a panel that addressed strategies to get ready.
“We do try our best to prepare in advance,” Taylor said, adding that she is already meeting with her state and regional teams to plan for next year. “It’s really important to take stock of what is most important for your organization.”
Identify Your Issues—Early
At AT&T, Taylor and her teams try to identify three key issues that are in play in multiple states, and those issues become the focus of their efforts. “When January kicks off, it’s really important for you and your teams to really prioritize where you are most concerned about issues and where you’re most excited about issues,” she said.
Beyond issues, Taylor tries to identify specific bills. “In states where there are multiple bills of a similar bent, what is it that you can support and get behind? That takes a lot of planning … that’s a great place to start.”
Newman said that her organization starts preparing soon after the end of the previous legislative session in order to have enough time to organize, set priorities and then start educating their audience.
“We’re pretty much year-round,” she said. “We assess how the previous session went and then, during the summer, starting in June and July, we start to put forth proposals for educating our advocates.”
Taylor goes through a similar evaluation with her teams at AT&T. “[We] get together and talk about what worked in 2019 and 2018 and think about what we can do better in 2020,” she said. “What didn’t we try? What might be the resources and assets we need to ask for and onboard at the end of the year in Q4—before January kicks off.”
Get Teams and Messaging Ready
With time at a premium once sessions start, the experts say it’s important to ready what you can in advance. That means now. Brockenborough, at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said her organization tries to stay “in real time” during the session. “It gets very difficult, especially when things are moving fast and there are [materials] that need to pass through an approval process,” she said. It helps to have “clear expectations about possible calls to action or how we want to creatively communicate.”
At the University of Washington Alumni Association, Newman and her team use a survey of their members to help guide their efforts in advance. “We use this to identify what our alumni care about and what issues they are likely to take action on,” she said. “We use that to identify our top three priorities to support during the legislative session. We also have a better grasp of the language that resonates with the alumni … this keeps us on track.”
Newman said the organization, which has a list that is 60,000 strong, often asks members to opt in to receive email on a specific issue. “If they opt in, we know they truly care about this issue,” she said. The result is participation rates during campaigns that can reach 35 percent, she said.
Brockenborough said that her organization works hard to ensure that the teams involved in messaging are diverse and reflect the audience they are addressing. “It’s important to … communicate in a way that is relatable and culturally competent,” she said. The result is the type of content that every organization is striving to create. As Brockenborough put it, “something that is interesting and engaging for people to join in on.”
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