Don’t Let Your Fly-In Become A Fly-Away

Don’t Let Your Fly-In Become A Fly-Away

Washington fly-ins can be extremely successful to accomplishing myriad goals for any group or coalition. However, planning and preparation are key to a successful event. Without a well-organized and prepared plan, this popular form of political advocacy can leave a flat or negative impression with Capitol Hill and your advocates as well.

Lobbyists, congressional watchers and Hill staffers alike agree that the key to a successful fly-in is preparation.

One of the biggest mistakes congressional aides see is groups expending a lot of time, energy and money into bringing folks from the district to Capitol Hill only to have those people get in front of a lawmaker or aide and not know what to say. Training, talking points, even role playing ahead of a lobby day is essential to making sure your attendees successfully deliver your message, legislative aides say.

Preparation on your part is also essential. Don’t just hand advocates massive packets of information hours before sending them to meetings on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers prefer hearing from and meeting with constituents directly rather than lobbyists or Washington representatives. But, the benefit of having “real people” speak on behalf of your organization or cause drops precipitously if those advocates don’t know what message to convey or how to do so accurately and articulately.

Being organized is just as important as being prepared. Having troops of well-rehearsed participants ready to deploy across Capitol Hill on your group’s lobby day or days can only help your cause if they actually hit their target. Missed meetings caused by failed logistics is not only a missed opportunity, it leaves a bad impression with the lawmaker or Hill staffer with whom your citizen-lobbyists were supposed to meet.

Make sure each team you deploy is led by someone who knows Capitol Hill in every sense—its chaotic nature, legislative workings, unique personalities and labyrinth hallways and tunnels, stressed one staffer to an Ohio lawmaker we spoke with recently. Nothing is more frustrating for legislators’ schedulers or representatives than granting a group time only to have them turn up late or not at all because they got lost in transit, he said.

The optimal lead-time for requesting a meeting with a lawmaker is three-four weeks in advance, according to Capitol Hill schedulers.

Before anyone can be trained or deployed, the Washington representative or organization’s leader must recruit stakeholders to participate in the fly-in. Recruiting from the widest pool possible is key. So is asking them to participate in an enticing way. The invitation itself needs to be attractive. Instead of an email reading, “join us” or “help us,” one that’s headed something like “will you lead our effort” is more appealing to local advocates.

Any business or group organizing a lobby day should maximize the opportunity internally as well as externally. The herculean effort it takes to pull off a national lobby day should reap benefits well beyond the office meetings it yields. It’s an extra opportunity to engage your top advocates, raise money and build relationships.

Beyond demystifying Washington for them, making it fun for your stakeholders is important. Incorporating a social activity—Capitol tour, outing to a baseball game or museum visit—can really make the trip worthwhile for advocates. Holding a reception where attendees can mingle with each other and Washington leaders is another experience organizers can offer to make participating more attractive to stakeholders. Bringing in speakers who can inspire and galvanize, such as a current or former lawmaker, your Washington representative or trade association head—can create a pep rally atmosphere that will leave attendees excited and eager to spread your message. Featuring a panel discussion or Q&A with some sort of elections expert or insider educates advocates and serves as an incentive to come to Washington.

And finally, since you’ve brought hundreds of your most enthusiastic advocates to the nation’s capital and connected them with insiders engaged in or interested in your cause, hosting a fundraiser for your political action committee is a logical component for your fly-in.

Now that your dates are locked in, your participants’ travel booked, agenda set and meetings scheduled, it’s time to attract media coverage. Send a press release announcing your event and agenda, make sure it gets listed in the “daybooks”—the bibles put out by wire services and found in the backs of Capitol Hill publications—open your panels and seminars to the press, invite reporters to your cocktail receptions or breakfast speeches and provide them with written materials.

When your fly-in adjourns, the follow-up begins. You’ve already ended every Hill meeting by leaving relevant, informative and accessible packets or talking points behind. Equally important is sending “thank you” notes to everyone who took the time to meet with your group. So is circling back to the offices that promised you additional information or feedback. Email the person with whom your group met. If the lawmaker was present, write or call the aide who handles your issue area. Getting immediate participant evaluations is also critical.

Lastly, the entire point of your fly-in was to establish or reaffirm relationships on Capitol Hill. Don’t squander the momentum your lobby day built. Add the new contacts to your database; invite them to your events; keep them apprised of your activities and reach out to them when key votes or decisions loom.