Congress took office this month and the challenges were immediate. A government shutdown, a border showdown and a Justice Department investigation met new members at the door. Ahead lies two years of divided government, on a path to a pivotal presidential election.
These are tremulous times in the nation’s capital, but advocacy professionals know that the business of Washington continues. Legislation will pass. Regulation will be approved. The strain of partisan times should not prevent your organization from communicating with Congress and the agencies about your most important issues.
How you steer that communication, however, is worth some thought. After all, this is not your parents’ Congress.
A Truly New Congress
The lawmakers who took office this month are different from years past. More than 100 women now serve. There is unprecedented diversity, whether defined by race, religion or sexual orientation. Even professions are different, with military service again on the rise. All of these changes will impact the tenor of the 116th Congress.
Yet, there is one factor that is more likely than others to affect the advocacy community: this Congress is younger.
With an infusion of millennials in the last election, the average age of the current members of Congress dropped by 10 years, according to PBS NewsHour. In the House, there are now new 25 members who are 40 or younger. A handful are under 30.
That will have a major impact how they communicate, and savvy organizations will have to adapt.
New Congress, New Thinking
For most advocacy programs, email is a workhorse tool. It is used in Congressional offices as a proxy for constituent sentiment, and advocacy organizations have depended on it for decades as a cheap and effective way to communicate with Congress about issues. Social media has been in play for about 15 years, but has traditionally been a secondary focus.
That may be changing. The younger Congress is far more tuned to social media, having grown up in the digital age. A 35-year-old member of Congress was born in 1984 and entered high school in the late 1990s, coming of age in the internet boom. They grew up in a world where digital technology was a defining aspect of American culture.
That phenom was much in evidence in last year’s campaign, and continues as new members take office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat and the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress at 29, is often held up as an example. On Twitter, she has almost 2.6 million followers as of this writing—more than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And she’s been in office less than a month.
Ocasio-Cortez is not the only one. Earlier this month, CNN declared in a headline, “New members of Congress are sharing on social media like never before.” If they are sharing more on social, it stands to reason that they will be listening more and interacting more. Advocacy organizations will have to meet these lawmakers where they live, engaging them on social media and pushing issues in a way that they will hear.
New tools that provide social listening and media analysis will also become far more important, allowing organizations to track the conversation around their issues and make use of what they find. For example, Calibrate720, available from SevenTwenty Strategies, uses artificial intelligence to track hundreds of thousands of sources, providing real-time media analysis to dial in effective campaigns. Based on software developed for military applications, Calibrate helps organizations anticipate and react, and then measure the impact of their communication.
If that’s not enough evidence, consider this: Congress is not the only thing getting younger. The electorate is, too. A study at Tufts University found that fully 31 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 turned out in November’s election. “We estimate that this is by far the highest level of participation among youth in the past quarter century—the last seven midterm elections,” the study said. Those voters respond to social media as well.
Leave Room for Retail
Of course, educating lawmakers on complicated topics is not a job to be left solely to Instagram and Facebook. It takes facetime, preferably using constituents to carry your message.
Whether you hold a fly-in, participate in fundraisers or invite members of Congress to tour your facility in the district, retail politics will help enormously when dealing with new lawmakers who are still finding their way. It’s tough to introduce the right position on an issue without a face to go with it.
Indeed, a recent survey of advocacy professionals showed that reliance on digital tactics could “soften” in coming elections in favor of more relationship-based, in-person advocacy. The Benchmarking the Ballot Box report, released by SevenTwenty Strategies and the Public Affairs Council, showed that support for some digital tactics, including social and email, will decline in the future. Yet support for relationship-based techniques remained solid among advocacy professionals, who continue to believe in the power of candidate visits, voter registration events and election-related speakers.
This support for face-to-face advocacy is not just for elections. It works after the races are won, too.