Jumpstarting a Key Contact Program

by Jeff Mascott

Cross-posted from K Street Cafe

Key contact programs are vital in today’s advocacy environment.  Having a large grassroots army that can mobilize on a range of issues is necessary, but not sufficient.  Organizations also need to be able to call on a committed group of activists who are willing to go above and beyond.

Unlike a traditional grassroots campaign, a key contact program focuses on a narrower subset of individuals.  Specifically, a “key contact” is someone who either (1) has an established relationship with an elected official; (2) has a comfort level with engaging in intense advocacy activities, such as making phone calls or doing in-person visits; or (3) has built up political capital through involvement in groups like the PTA.  One useful approach to building a key contact program around these types of individuals is the RAP Index.

Earlier this year, the Congressional Management Foundation released “Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill,” compiling the results of a survey of more than 250 congressional staff about constituent communications.  (Disclaimer: My firm, Adfero Group, is a co-sponsor of the report.)

One figure in the CMF’s report shows how Congressional staffers rated the influence of various advocacy tactics.  At the top of the list were “in person visits from constituents,” which 46% of respondents rated as having “a lot of positive influence,” and 51% rated as having “some influence.”   In contrast, only 1% of respondents rated “form email messages” as having “a lot of positive influence,” with 50% responding that form emails have “some influence.”

Although high-volume efforts like form email campaigns play a role in effective advocacy strategies, these statistics show that making an impact on Capitol Hill largely depends on high-touch advocacy tactics.  A Member’s one-on-one time with the well-educated and well-connected advocate is crucial to advancing an organization’s message.

If your organization is looking to develop a key contact program, here are some steps to follow:

1) Begin building in advance. An effective key contact program takes time to create.  It is not something you can develop overnight when your organization is facing an unexpected crisis.  If you expect a tough legislative fight in the future, start thinking about a key contact program now.

2) Focus on geography. You may not need a key contact program that spans all 50 states.  Outline your legislative goals for the next several years and figure out what states and districts are most important for those goals.  Concentrate your key contact program in these areas.

3) Analyze your current assets. Far too many organizations try to jumpstart a key contact program by starting from scratch instead of looking back to see who has taken action in the past.  Start with your existing assets and build from there.

4) Survey your entire membership. You should consider everyone, regardless of whether or not they have taken action in the past.  You never know who is going to turn out to be a great advocate.  A member may not be interested in politics, but her son could play on a soccer team with a Senator’s son.  When you survey your membership, your goal should be to figure out who has the key relationships, what those relationships are, and how strong they are.  You may find your best advocates from the most unlikely of sources.

5) Continually educate and inform your key contacts. The biggest mistake organizations make is to build a key contact list and then neglect it for three, six, or even twelve months when there is no pressing legislative goal.  You should provide your key contacts with special insider information on a regular basis to keep them engaged.

6) Reward and recognize. Your organization should brainstorm creative ways to reward and recognize your best advocates.   For example, the American Society of Anesthesiologists (an Adfero client) recently launched its “Advocacy Network,” which allows advocates to log into a Web site to report each action they take, place themselves on the ASA Advocacy Map, and earn points toward the ranking of “superactivist.”  The ASA’s efforts to reward its advocates have dramatically increased participation within its network.  Your efforts to recognize top activists will pay off.

7) Continually recruit and refine your efforts. Don’t neglect newcomers to the game.  You should regularly adjust your key contact program to be sure it is working effectively.