Lobbying and grassroots advocacy are different approaches to a common goal

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By: Joshua Habursky and Mike Fulton, first appearing on The Hill’s Congress Blog

Grassroots lobbying by trained volunteer advocates and the direct lobbying by paid professional consultants is not always a perfect marriage. In some organizations the grassroots wing and lobbying wing will have an adversarial relationship having the standard misconceptions of “astroturf” or “hired-gun” for one another. Congressional gridlock increases the likelihood that your bill will reach an impasse and internal strife within a government relations department does not further your organizational agenda or advance your cause.

Grassroots advocacy and direct lobbying are two techniques that need to be carefully applied in calculated situations to spur regulatory or legislative change. The techniques are complimentary and work best when the techniques are applied consistently, cooperatively and when the two functionaries are constantly communicating. Having an engaged public is important to bring about substantive action in the public policy arena and is an integral component in the overall process. Having a trained lobbyist constantly monitoring the public policy process and providing expertise is an equally important ingredient. The recipe for success in government relations includes both ingredients.

Lobby Days, Hill Days, Advocacy Summits, or the host of other names for Congressional fly-ins are usually instances where lobbyists and grassroots advocates mingle. The most successful government relations departments will not treat this event as a turf war or create an unnecessary hierarchy between the two sub-sectors. Lobbyists and professional grassroots staff should both be ushers for the volunteers that donate their time to be an integral part of the political process and advocate for a cause that they care deeply about.

The right to petition government for a redress of grievances, protected by the First Amendment, applies to individuals and organizations from the small non-profit to the large corporation. This right is also the universal standard that applies to professional lobbyists and grassroots advocates alike, granting them the authority to communicate with government to support or oppose action. Lobbying and grassroots advocacy are different approaches to a common goal.

Grassroots advocacy, sometimes mistakenly termed “indirect lobbying” is a means to influence the decision-making process vis-à-vis trained constituencies and to create an atmosphere of public awareness around an issue to encourage average citizens to take part in political efficacy. There is nothing “indirect” about a constituent meeting with his or her member of Congress, sending an email, or Tweeting about an issue that directly affects the member’s district.

Effective grassroots advocacy can be just as “direct” as if the communication came from a professional lobbyist. The trained lobbyist must ensure that this communication meets the conventional standards of communicating with Congress, polish the edges, and navigate the intricacies of the process.  Effective lobbying and advocacy occurs when both sub-sectors of government relations are synchronized and working in tandem.

When these two essential ingredients of successful advocacy do not mix well, nothing tastes as bad and objectives sour.

 

Habursky is the Chair of the Grassroots Professional Network and can be reached at jmhabursky@gmail.com. Fulton is director of public affairs and advocacy at the Asher Agency – mikef@asheragency.com. Both teach online communications courses for West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.

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