27 Feb The Legislature as an Audience
When it comes to interacting with legislators, many PR practitioners run and hide. It’s an audience many don’t interact with every day, and the process, not to mention the jargon, can be overwhelming at best.
However, for many clients large and small, the work of local, state and national lawmakers can have an enormous impact. For that reason, it’s essential that we make this complex world understandable and learn to think about the Legislature as an audience.
As PR practitioners, we communicate on issues important to the legislative audience, while lobbyists seek to influence legislators for their support or opposition of issues before the Legislature. Lobbyists must be licensed and document to regulators their interactions with policymakers, as well as dollars spent engaging with legislators. For those of us who are not licensed lobbyists, we must be careful not to stray into that territory.
Public affairs work seeks to influence public opinion, working with the masses to achieve our client’s needs. Public affairs is considered a grassroots approach to exercising influence. Rather than setting up meetings with lawmakers, we leverage traditional PR tactics – press releases, media advisories, press conferences, opinion pieces and media interviews – to strengthen public understanding and support (or opposition) for the issue at hand.
In general, legislators are concerned about the issues that matter to those they represent. Constituent outreach has great impact and is key to helping legislators effectively represent their district. Legislators are ever mindful that they work for their constituents – local residents can impact a legislator’s policy decisions today and get them elected the next time they stand for election. If you can communicate an issue in such a way that local residents support and are passionate about it, you are well on your way to getting the message through to those in positions of power.
One such example was our firm’s work with Michigan’s Campaign for Smokefree Air. To assist with the campaign’s goal of increasing awareness about the dangers of secondhand smoke exposure in the workplace, we developed a toolkit of communications materials to engage the general public. Through the creation of a dedicated website, social media strategies, media materials, advocacy communications, fact sheets and more, as well as the targeted distribution of the materials, a once-complicated issue became easy to understand.
To further the campaign’s goals, LE&A assisted in coordinating events and rallies, overseeing messaging polls, conducting air quality testing and assembling street teams. After four years of targeted efforts, public support for smokefree air laws was at an all-time high and was the top issue legislators were hearing about from their constituents. With the help of LE&A’s communications and public affairs efforts, smokefree air legislation was passed and signed into Michigan law.
Developing the right materials to be effective is contingent on understanding the milestones needed to achieve success. For those unfamiliar with the legislative process, a good place to start is subscribing to political news services that reflect the area of government you’re interested in.
Here in Michigan, news services like MIRS and Gongwer are a wealth of knowledge about day-to-day actions in the state Legislature. Articles will generally include the next step in the legislative process – if a bill will go on to a committee hearing, another chamber, or to the Governor’s desk for signing. You can also follow the path of a bill by visiting legislature.mi.gov and searching for key words or bill numbers.
While diving into the legislative process can come with its own set of hurdles and challenges, it is an essential form of communications in a democratic society, and one we should all embrace.
Clare Liening is a senior associate specializing in education, nonprofit, health care services and public affairs at Lambert, Edwards & Associates.