It’s a familiar scene at many organizations: an event, occasion or issue that requires an immediate response pops up without warning. It causes a fire drill as everyone scrambles to get something out the door on time. Often, the result is less than satisfactory.
While rapid response is part of government affairs, too often these drills involve things your team should see coming. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a list of all the action that could be identified in advance? That’s called an advocacy calendar. You can create one with a bit of effort, and it is definitely time well spent.
Organized professionals use an advocacy calendar to minimize surprises. It is simply a calendar that lists all the advocacy communications you know your team will do, plus events that could impact your program and your conversation with supporters in the coming year or so. Done correctly, it is a great way to fuel the ongoing conversation with your audience, communicate on an even cadence throughout the year, and keep your list warm for the real emergencies. By listing everything that could impact your program, you gain flexibility and awareness. You don’t have to act on any of it. But it is nice to know what’s ahead.
Start With What You Know
The mission here is pretty simple: collect all of the dates that you want to know for the next year to 18 months. August can be a good time to do this because things are often slower. Where you store these dates is up to you. It might be as simple as a spreadsheet or a Google calendar. Or you could use professional project or productivity software. Choose something that is going to be easy to use and, equally important, easy to share around your organization. The system matters less than the goal, which is to create a comprehensive list.
Start by logging everything you know, along with dates and any notes you care to make. Here are some suggestions:
- Elections and Political Dates. Elections are a good place to begin. Include the dates of any key primaries your team wants to track, and the general election. Add in the State of the Union speech and any inauguration or swearing-in dates.
- Events and Fly-ins. If your organization has an annual conference, add that in, as well as any fly-ins you do in Washington or state capitols. If you have partner organizations or state offices and they have their own events, add those too. Remember: if it is something you want to know about, put it on the list.
- Fundraisers and Publications. If your organization releases major reports, put the publication dates on your list. If you have a big annual fundraiser, or perhaps more than one, those too are obvious dates to include. Add #GivingTuesday if that is important to your organization.
- Regional Events and Conferences. Does your organization attend SXSW or Dreamforce? How about the Public Affairs Council conferences? Or maybe industry-specific events? Log anything that is relevant.
- Congressional Calendar. If you need to know when the House and the Senate are in session, you can add those dates to your calendar. Yes, they do change. But it gives you something. Similarly, if you track activity in state legislatures, you can add those dates. The same applies to local government. If you watch the Los Angeles City Council or the Board of County Commissioners in Miami-Dade County, add their meetings to your calendar.
- Holidays, Awareness Dates and Anniversaries. If you might communicate with your audience on July 4 or Veterans Day, put those dates on the list. The same goes for Black History Month, Pride Month, International Women’s Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month and any other annual event that matters to your organization. Add in anniversaries, too. For example, many organizations marked the one-year anniversary this year of the murder of George Floyd. Others might want to mark the passage of major legislation. If you think it might be important, add it in.
Tour Your Own Organization
If you leave this on your desktop and add to it over a period of days, you will quickly have a nicely populated calendar. It may start to look messy, but don’t let that deter you. Remember: you can always remove things. It’s better to start with a comprehensive list and prune it back than to have items left off your calendar, and thus off your radar.
To that end, the next step is to discover what you don’t know—and there is always something. The best way to do this is to take a tour of your own organization: talk to your colleagues in communications, marketing, publications, membership, development, events and other departments about their major dates. Before the pandemic, you might have been able to do this with a few drop-ins to key offices. These days, email is likely your best bet. It forces people to give you a considered answer. If you are worried emails will get ignored, set a deadline (give people at least a week) and send a follow if needed. If nothing else, you have a written record that you made the request.
Be sure to include the C-suite on your tour. Is your CEO scheduled to speak anywhere in the next year? Will there be a recording or a video? If so, add that to your list. A speaking engagement by the chief is a common source of fire drills in some organizations. Better to know about it in advance. That concept can also be applied to major figures outside your organization, too. Are there heroes, celebrities and luminaries in your industry—people who will be meaningful to your audience? A request to see their calendar of public appearances cannot hurt. Again, you have no obligation to act on anything. But it is nice to know when these things take place.
Get Some Buy-in
When you like your calendar and you feel it is complete, do some selective trimming. Eliminate anything you know is not helpful. Share it with your team and ask them to add and subtract. This is a good time to start marking occasions when you will definitely want to send advocacy communications. That list does not need to be complete. In fact, it probably should be high-level and loose in order to leave room for the inevitable advocacy work you cannot see coming. When you are done, you should have a solid list of events that could inform your advocacy. That leaves just one more step.
Share the calendar with the people in your organization who helped you build it and ask them to weigh in. Explain that this is simply an informational calendar and likely to shift, and then ask if it looks complete. Are there items that should be added? Did you miss anything? When you have your answers, you have your advocacy calendar.
Done right, this should give you a tool that can ensure you don’t miss major events and inform communications on almost every channel, from email and text to social media and the blog. It may also cut down on the number of fire drills—and that never hurts.
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