Welcome to our latest installment of GrassScoops: An Interview Series. We will be chatting with grassroots advocacy changemakers from leading associations, nonprofits and corporations each month. We will highlight the challenges they encountered, lessons learned, and best practices they recommend, so that others may learn from their experiences.
In this edition, we are excited to chat with Meredith Nethercutt, Senior Associate for Member Advocacy at the Society for Human Resources Management, about regulatory advocacy and the changing advocacy space.
Tell us about yourself and your role at SHRM.
I am SHRM’s Senior Associate for Member Advocacy within our Government Affairs team. Within that role, I oversee SHRM’s official advocacy network of almost 10,000 volunteer HR advocates, the SHRM Advocacy Team (or “A-Team”). The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is a professional society with over 290,000 U.S. members, with 51 official State Councils and over 575 chapters in all 435 congressional districts – a natural pipeline for advocacy at the local, state and federal levels.
You have been in the advocacy space for a while. Has this always been something you were passionate about?
I actually started on the legislative affairs side of government affairs at the beginning of my career, and very quickly determined that I preferred working directly with an organization’s members rather than congressional offices. Hearing the challenges and opportunities that face a professional society’s or trade association’s members – and determining how those stories and voices can be leveraged to lead to public policy change – is something about which I am much more passionate.
SHRM ran a campaign about employees’ rights and the Overtime Regulation rule. Can you tell us about the strategy and tactics you used for this campaign?
Our most recent success in terms of advocacy campaigns spanned from 2014-2016 when the Department of Labor worked to update regulations defining overtime. Since those proposed changes would impact our entire membership/advocate network, I needed to proactively devise an enterprise-wide education, communications, and advocacy campaign.
As a first step, I determined I needed to “audit” SHRM, our resources and the ways we communicate with our members. By leveraging all of our organization’s internal teams and communications channels; by exploring new advocacy innovations and engagement techniques; and by maintaining regular, proactive and reliable communications to our membership, our organization was deemed a thought leader and top impactor on this issue. Were we weaving updates and calls-to-action into all applicable SHRM communications and media pieces? Were all internal teams briefed and able to generally speak to the issue and our efforts? Were SHRM advocates able to effectively communicate on behalf of this issue to their lawmakers? And was there one place for all our resources, calls-to-action and ways to make a difference that was accessible to SHRM constituencies?
Two key tactics proved invaluable to our overall efforts: that advocates had a one-stop-shop location for all materials and needs for this effort, and that we encouraged them to simultaneously educate their members of Congress on this regulatory issue throughout the process. We designed an issue-specific page on our action center dedicated solely to our efforts. We then ensured that whenever a SHRM member sent a comment to the DOL on the issue, a copy was also sent to the advocate’s U.S. Representative and Senators. As a result, numerous pieces of legislation were introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate that attempted to alleviate some of the burdens of the impending regulation.
As with advocacy campaigns in general, this was a marathon not a sprint. No matter the outcome of the regulatory campaign, we made it an advocacy priority to ensure our members were well-educated prior to, during, and after the regulatory process. This particular campaign led to drastic growth of our A-Team, and proved internally and externally that an advocacy program – and its advocates – are a critical foundation to any organization that wants to be a thought leader on an issue.
Were there any notable challenges you encountered that you had to overcome?
Regulatory campaigns typically present two challenges: A defined comment period (in our case, 60 days), and the lack of a public representative to lobby. With a legislative advocacy campaign, advocates have the opportunity to raise their voices directly to their members of Congress as that issue is being considered. With the proposed changes to overtime regulations, our advocates had no one to meet with – their only real avenue of communicating how this would impact their organization and employees was by submitting a comment through the regulatory website. We needed to engage our advocates despite the fact that the regulatory rulemaking process is typically done behind closed doors – as opposed to being openly discussed and debated in Congress – and our advocates needed to be prepared and ready to take immediate action during the brief comment period. In addition, internally, we needed to determine whether or not the focus of our efforts was “quantity” of engagements, or “quality” member communications to the DOL. Since the agency is required to review each submitted comment, did we want to encourage thousands of form emails, or personalized testimonials from HR professionals?
We ultimately decided to pursue a hybrid effort – we did not provide a template comment letter to our advocates, but we did encourage them to consider providing personalized insight on key topics (impact on budgets, employee morale, benefits, etc.). That way, the Department of Labor would receive a strong number of high-quality comments with legitimate testimonials that would hopefully have an impact on the final rule.
How did you define success for this campaign, and what were the results you achieved?
SHRM was incredibly proud of its members’ engagement on this issue. Our members were front and center in sharing the actual implications of this proposed regulatory change. Whether by engaging in local events with the DOL and the Small Business Administration (SBA), testifying before Congress, serving as media contacts across the country, or being a face for the issue in-district or on Capitol Hill with their lawmakers, SHRM members from all industries, organization sizes and geographic regions served as model advocates, regardless of prior advocacy experience. Positioning HR and SHRM as a key resource inside and outside of Washington, D.C. on this regulation added to an already-fantastic advocacy foundation.
Can you share your thoughts on leveraging social media in advocacy campaigns?
I’m very fortunate that SHRM’s members and advocates are incredibly savvy on social media. No matter the platform, HR pros are energized and impactful as voices for both their employers and their fellow employees on workplace public policy issues. Social media efforts are yet another way for them to connect with their legislators in a positive way, further offering themselves as reliable workplace policy resources. However, I will say that being able to pull from all aspects of “advocacy and grassroots engagement,” which comes from years of experience, to produce a well-rounded public policy campaign is something I have truly come to appreciate. I see social media advocacy as a key component – but not the only component – of successful advocacy campaigns.
How have you seen the advocacy space evolve and change over the course of your career?
There is no doubt – advocacy has massively evolved over the years. And the emergence of social media as another “leg” of an advocacy effort has pushed advocacy campaign leaders to educate and mobilize advocates in a whole new language. I honestly think that all these innovations in the advocacy realm are forcing even greater need for strategy, tactics and goals within a campaign. It’s important to remember that we, as advocacy leaders, should be aware of advocacy innovations as they arise, but to do our due diligence to determine which resources would be most productive to our respective organizations.
In the same vein, what do you see as the future of advocacy?
In my experience, I feel that a well-grounded advocacy campaign contains both tried-and-true methods (letter-writing, phone calls, personal visits with lawmakers) as well as innovations (social media, digital strategy, etc.). It is critical to not forget or disregard tactics that have been used for decades, and that continue to lead to public policy change. But the advocacy world is constantly shifting and developing, so one needs to remain proactive and think outside-the-box when considering strategy. I do think that connecting advocates together as a community, through a variety of forums and avenues will lead to further advocate investment in calls-to-action. Whether via social media platforms, text activation or mobile apps, advocacy will continue to thrive if participants feel the strength in numbers – and a connection to both the issue and to fellow advocates.
Any last thoughts you’d like to tell our readers?
When driving an advocacy campaign, don’t forget to uncover and utilize every resource that already exists within your organization! And with regulatory campaigns in particular – be sure to manage expectations. Even if a regulatory agency receives tens of thousands of comment letters for/against a proposed rule, they may produce a final rule that does not shift from the proposed rule based on public comments. Define your own internal measures of success based on how you can strengthen your existing advocacy network and gauge the success of your tools throughout the campaign.
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