What’s Your Convention Strategy? And Yes, You Need One
Here’s a question that’s likely to cross your desk soon, if it hasn’t already: “What are we doing for the conventions?”
The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, represent many things to advocacy professionals. Major costs. Major opportunities. Major decisions. But one thing’s for sure, it’s the world’s largest political trade show, and you better be a part of it.
There was a time when political conventions were used to select each party’s presidential candidate. But with the candidates chosen in state primaries and caucuses, the conventions are now more of a political showcase, highly-scripted for television.
On the ground and off the air, the reality is very different, of course. Through hundreds of public and private events, networking and politics takes place on a scale that can only happen at a convention or a presidential inauguration, once every four years. And much of that is intensely personal.
Because conventions draw much of the political establishment on both the right and the left, from local mayors, to seven-figure fundraisers, they also draw the people who seek to influence them. Conventions are, in a very real sense, extravaganzas for politics, policy, and advocacy.
Are Conventions Really Important For My Organization?
There are several ways to address the question, and how you do so can have a serious impact on your advocacy program in 2016. It depends on several factors.
Ask yourself this: Why would you spend heavily on advocacy throughout the year only to sit out some of the main events? Many savvy organizations use the conventions strategically, advancing the policy issues they care about. And despite what you might think, it need not cost a fortune.
Every major political figure will be there, from mayors, governors and members of Congress, to the largest fundraisers in the country. If there’s an audience you want to reach, you will find them in Philadelphia and Cleveland this July.
How Do I Go About It?
There’s no way to reach everyone at a political convention – this isn’t the Super Bowl, where a TV buy gets the job done – but there are plenty of ways to reach your constituency.
Convention visitors are seeking a mix of experiences, some focused on politics, some on policy and advocacy issues, and some just for fun. You can provide the dose of policy and advocacy exposure. They key is to take a strategic approach and start a conversation around your policy topic, engage the audience that matters to your organization, and do it in a compelling way.
One of the most cost-effective ways to do that is to hold an event. Hosting a breakfast, lunch or dinner, or even a reception or a hospitality suite, gives you a platform to hold a policy discussion. If you can offer an engaging speaker on an interesting topic – and you avoid competing with other major events – you can draw your audience and get them engaged.
Don’t Be Afraid to Play to a Partisan Audience
One way to do that is to present something provocative. Let’s say your issue is renewable fuels. That’s a topic that will get some attention at the Democratic National Convention. But what about the Republican convention? It is not likely to top the agenda there.
A savvy organization might hold an event that speaks to how Republicans can embrace renewables – and to have a Republican speaker deliver the message.
Conventions are a place for partisan conversations, so it’s okay to appeal to a partisan audience. But the competition for people’s time is tight, and so who you put on the podium – and what they have to say – will have a large impact on your ability to draw your audience.
Build on Work You’ve Already Done
Don’t be afraid to highlight a campaign that’s been successful but around for a while. Take for example Procter & Gamble. They launched their #likeagirl campaign in 2013 to enhance its Always brand, and saw massive success. The centerpiece of the campaign was a video that was viewed more than 85 million times in 150 countries, redefining the phrase “like a girl.”
To build on that at the 2016 political conventions, P&G worked with CQ Roll Call to underwrite 25 profiles on powerful women in state government. To maintain credibility, journalists chose the women to be featured. The profiles will be published in the months prior to the conventions, and will culminate at events celebrating the women in both Philadelphia and Cleveland. That way P&G’s convention presence will, in part, be an extension of its efforts over the last three years.
Unveil Something, or Honor Someone
You can release content, like a study or report, or poll results. You can highlight or honor a celebrity guest who has done a lot for your issue or organization over the years. You can have attendees take action, like pledging support or taking a survey. If you develop assets at the event itself; a survey, or video of a speech, you can continue the conversation afterwards. Your convention efforts can fuel your advocacy via traditional channels or, social media, for weeks after the convention (in this case, that includes the August doldrums).
Ultimately, that depends entirely on the size and substance of the event. A 30-person breakfast will cost less than hosting 200 people for dinner. A stand-alone event will cost more than buying into a pre-existing, multi-sponsor event. But no matter what your budget, organizations that conduct advocacy can and should have a presence at the conventions. And events are a great way to do it.
Work the Local Angle
Build your presence around an audience you already have, whether that’s a certain constituency, like veterans or Medicare recipients, or state and local chapters of your own organization. Supporting your locals is almost always time and money well spent.
One way to do that is to provide funding for them to participate in convention activities. Tickets to an event or speech – particularly those relevant to your issues – are a great way to thank the troops for their service or rally a constituency to your cause.
Hosting an event for your in-state supporters, whether they are inside or outside your organization, guarantees you’ll have an interested audience, and an instant return on your investment. For example, if your organization raises money for cancer research, an event featuring a celebrity survivor at the podium might be a huge boost to your staff and volunteers. If your organization is involved in manufacturing, why not celebrate what your crews are doing in Ohio and Pennsylvania?
Events built around local advocates offer all kinds of opportunities to display your organization’s gratitude. You can honor specific local talent, tell the stories of people who work hard for the cause, and get your largest national personalities – like a CEO or celebrity – some exposure to the people who make it all happen.
Perhaps most important, you’ll be dealing with an interested and eager audience, and the investment you make will pay off in the form of increased enthusiasm for the issues that are important to your organization.
Part 2: Your Non-Hosting Strategy
Of course, it’s possible to capitalize on the conventions without hosting anything. You can send a delegation of executives and advocates to represent your organization. Although that’s cheaper, it can also be more difficult to show a demonstrable return.
Sort Out Your Scheduling
You’ll have to make sure your delegation is in the right places, with the right people, in order to have a good experience, and that they are helping your organization achieve its goals. That’s not always easy, but it can be done.
Start by gathering information. What activities make sense for your people? What relationships do they need to foster or further?
There are likely to be dozens of events and activities taking place in your policy arena. Companies, associations, advocacy groups and officials, host hundreds of gatherings – and that’s not counting the official stuff. Create a matrix, set some targets, and go about getting tickets and invitations. Look for a mix of activities that blend politics, policy and entertainment.
Don’t take access for granted. The guest list for most events is tightly controlled, and the last thing you want is to send executives to an event where they are blocked at the door. Make sure they have tickets and credentials before they get on the plane.
Also, pay close attention to transportation and time management. Conventions are fun, but the logistics are notoriously difficult. Public transportation is jammed and cabs are in short supply. Restaurants are full, and tables are difficult to come by. Just getting a coffee and a barstool can be tough. Have a transportation plan. Give your representatives down time each day, and don’t assume they can return to their hotel to rest. Get some access to a hospitality suite or a similar venue where snacks, water and bathrooms are plentiful.
Getting in Front of the Right People
If your delegation wants face time with specific people – say, a member of Congress – look for events where that person is likely to be (at conventions, most state delegations have events of their own). You can also take the opposite approach and invite those people to join your delegation at an event or a meal.
A company seeking time with a client in Pennsylvania or Ohio might take this approach. When you are looking for tickets and booking reservations, think beyond your own organization to those you might be able to entice.
If your list of activities falls short in a particular area, one option is to have your organization buy into a pre-existing event as a sponsor.
That can give you the opportunity to invite your audience and provide a home base for your delegation, where your organization is an underwriter, and entitled to some services. Moreover, it does all this without the logistical problems associated with sponsoring an event of your own.
However you choose to get it done, sending a delegation is better than ignoring the conventions altogether. And it is cheaper than having a larger, more official presence. Just make sure you do your homework and execute well.
Extending Your Convention Efforts
Whatever your strategy, one savvy trick is to extend the utility of your convention activities beyond the convention itself. Done correctly, your convention presence can help fuel your everyday advocacy in the weeks after the convention.
A campaign that begins at the convention, on social media or some other medium, can live on thereafter. You just need to plan it.
The single best way to do that is to acquire some assets at the convention. That could be as simple as photos or video of your delegation and your event. They can be parsed and doled out on social media for weeks. If you deliver any content at the convention, a report or a survey, you’ll have that, too.
And, of course, why wouldn’t you tie your convention work to your advocacy activities? The mission is the same: to carry your message to people who can help, and the conventions are a great place to do that.