By Scott Terrell, Director of Government Relations, AIA California
Advocacy – Telling a Story
Legislators and their staff hear from hundreds of groups a year vying for their attention. In this crowded field of voices, it can become difficult to have your voice heard on matters important to you. How does one make their message stand out? One way is by telling a story.
How to tell your story in an effective manner:
1. Know your audience.
California is one of the most diverse states in our union – both by demographics and regions. There are members of the legislature that represent a number of densely populated street blocks in San Francisco to members who represent more rural districts in the Central Valley where people must drive far distances to get to work. Some members represent urban communities, while others represent rural farming or mountain communities. The interests, needs, and wants of these constituencies will all differ. In addition, each member of legislature has their own personal and professional background, which also shapes their thought processes and priorities.
This is why it is essential to know your audience. Just because you believe you have the right message, it does not mean that all stakeholders will hear that message in the same way. To break through the noise, you must know what is important to the person you are speaking to, and tailor your message in a way that they will receive it.
2. Know your value added.
There are many pressing issues that law makers wrestle with every year. On each of those important issues, they are lobbied by countless groups who all believe they have the best solution. It can be easy for a message to become buried in this environment. That is why it is essential that we know what our “value added” is on the important topics of the time.
What is the unique part of the equation that architects can add that other groups cannot? Why should we be a part of the conversation? When it comes to the top issues on California lawmakers’ minds like homelessness, climate action, housing affordability, and social justice, how specifically can architects play a role in addressing those issues. We must have real tangible answers – and examples when possible – to those questions and deliver them in a succinct well thought out manner in order to cut through all the noise. This is how we can establish the industry as respected thought leaders and problem solvers.
3. Build proactive relationships.
You can refine your message and know your audience, but if you cannot get it to the ears of those who need to hear it then your advocacy effort will struggle. The California State Capitol largely runs on relationships. Much business is done through conversations between trusted advocates and stakeholders and elected officials and their staff. Therefore, it is imperative that any good advocacy program include proactive relationship building.
For some background from a Capitol perspective, in most offices constituents have the loudest voice. In fact, offices have constituent management services that allow them to track all communications from constituents on a variety of topics and track any trends. Meetings with constituents are often prioritized as well. Grassroots efforts that mobilize constituent members on issues are an essential piece of the puzzle. However, even this platform can become crowded at times depending on the issue.
In order to get a leg up in this situation, it is effective to have a pre-established relationship built with members of the legislature. This can be done in a number of ways. On the most basic level, connecting members of our organization with members of the legislature so that we can share our story is a great start. Additionally, we at a staff level work to maintain relationships with key players and contract with lobbyists who have built out those connections as well. Building upon that, finding ways to “give” and offer value over time before big “asks” have to be made are essential building blocks for proactive relationship building. This is a principle that is used in the marketing world all the time when it comes to effective messaging – give more than you ask. This translates well into the proactive relationship building arena as well.
“Giving” can look like anything from offering to be a technical resource, to hosting community events in conjunction with legislators, to attending community events that legislators are holding. These, among others, are all effective ways to build proactive relationships with legislators that are not based solely on coming to them when you need something.
Advocacy is all about finding ways to amplify your voice. Knowing who you are talking to, knowing who you are and what value you add, and building relationships are all essential elements of telling a story that will be remembered. I look forward to discussing ways we can do this with you all moving forward.