Tips for effective advocacy, from Kent State’s Legislation Conference

Washington's Kathy Schrier, North Dakota's Sue Skalicky, Minnesota's Lori Keekley and Ohio's John Bowen exchange strategies at the Kent State legislative workshop.

Kent State University’s journalism school has released video highlights of a symposium that brought together press-freedom advocates from across the country to exchange strategies for effective legislative advocacy.

Attendees got an intensive lobbying boot camp from Rebecca Snyder of the Maryland-D.C.-Delaware Press Association, who led the successful New Voices of Maryland movement leading to enactment of Senate Bill 764 in 2016. Her key takeaways included:

  • Understand that legislators will come to the issue with little knowledge and even less sense of urgency: “It’s easier for things to stay the same than to make change.  … These people are exhausted — short attention spans and frazzled. This isn’t an issue that puts food on anyone’s table. Making it an immediate problem is going to go a long way.”
  • Ideally, find a sponsor who sits on the committee where the bill is likely to be referred: “Even if you have an amazing sponsor, they’re an ‘amazing sponsor’ on a lot of bills, so they’re really going to rely on you to put it over the top.”
  • Don’t hasten to push for a committee hearing until you’ve perfected the bill and lined up your supporters: “When you go before a legislative committee, nobody wants controversy. Nobody wants to have this big, dramatic bill. They want you to show bipartisan support. They want you to have worked out all the issues, all the kinks. Nobody wants to have a ton of amendments in the committee or on the floor. They want it to sail smoothly.”
  • If the proposal has failed before, figure out why: “Pull the old committee file. Read the testimony. You will know. I mean, people don’t change their minds that radically. You will find out what the arguments were the last time this bill came up. Try and find out why it didn’t move. Was it apathy? Did they run out of time? Was there someone who just hated this bill?”
  • Gather a simple set of compelling censorship stories and Q-and-A points to put into legislators’ hands: “I selected a couple of things where I thought our opposition would crop up, and we just did a call-and-response: ‘Here’s the myth, here’s the reality.’ Bills are long, they’re hard to read, even legislators don’t like to read them.”
  • Stay on top of the bill’s progress (or lack of progress) and don’t assume someone else will: “Know the mechanics of your session. Are there certain dates, like there’s usually a last date to file a bill. Is there some magic date where the bill has to cross over into the House? Learn how to track legislation because, honestly, you really can lose something because nobody’s paying attention to it and then you run out of time to vote. It happens.”
  • When meeting one-on-one with legislators, do everything possible to identify and answer their reservations: “It is a conversation, and legislators need to be treated like real people. Summarize the issue as quickly as possible. You already know what you think — you’re there to find out what they think. So give them plenty of time to talk it through. … Remember, you want something from them, so figure out what you want. Do you want their support in that committee, are you asking for them to be a co-sponsor — whatever that ask is, make sure you ask it.”
  • Prepare concise talking points to make sure your volunteers explain the bill properly: “You don’t want someone just wandering off freestyling when you have lovingly crafted your message and your plan. Make sure people are comfortable with the mechanics — where do you park, is security going to take me an hour or is it just walk right in?”
  • “Shape your message. Recognize that people’s attention spans are super-short. Know what you need to say and stay on message.”

The entire set of videos is online here, and they’re worth a look for anyone who’s enthusiastic to work on journalists’-rights legislation but may find the legislative process mystifying or intimidating.

After taking part in the October 2016 workshop, Vermont’s Chris Evans and Nevada’s Patrick File went on to lead successful campaigns to enact New Voices laws in their states.

Bills are on file currently in Michigan, New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey, but only the latter two states figure to have any realistic chance of acting on the legislation before the end of 2017. Bills were introduced in 2017 and are likely to return in 2018 in Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Washington.