Friday Jul 20

Part Two: Organizing + Lobbying = Power Tool

Editor’s Note

In the part one of Organizing and Lobbying = Power Tool,  the authors discussed some potentially problematic aspects of organizing and lobbying, including choosing coalition partners, setting campaign priorities, targeting decision makers, preparing lobbying arguments and meeting with decision makers.

As the authors pointed out in the earlier article, when people speak of lobbying, they have in mind argumentation based on facts and logic to influence government or corporate policy, practice, or product. When they speak of organizing, they have in mind building and using power to influence decision-makers. Of course, they argue that organizations should use both organizing and lobbying in our day-to-day practice, because campaigns work as more powerful tools when they combine demonstrated power with persuasive arguments.

In the following, the authors continue our examination of challenging aspects of organizing and lobbying, including: assembling a policy brief, pressuring and motivating decision-makers, planning a traditional media campaign, misusing social media, and testifying at legislative committee hearings.

Pressuring Decision-Makers

We recognize that in bringing pressure to bear on decision-makers, politicians react mainly to publicity that reflects on their character, bureaucrats react mainly to disrupting their agency’s services and programs, and corporations react mainly to the loss of their product’s reputation.

Pressuring politicians has been the go-to modus operandi of community organizing for decades, so the methods are well-known to experienced organizers. However, unelected bureaucrats typically have civil service protections, and inexperienced leaders and organizers may believe them to be immune to grassroots pressure. But we can successfully pressure bureaucrats by going after their elected bosses on directly related character issues. For example, having targeted the city’s code enforcement bureau, we might publicize campaign contributions to a city council member from a ruthless slumlord, whose housing code violations the bureau has overlooked. Or we may disrupt the delivery of services. For example, having targeted a tax assessor whose offices are not open during evening hours to accommodate working people, we might organize an action to file hundreds of assessment challenges, coupled with high exposure media coverage, to stop up his operation. Lastly, we may pressure bureaucrats to fully live up to their own bureaucratic rules in ways that will prevent them from achieving their mission. The possibilities in this vein are endless.

In any campaign, we should prepare leaders and members—mentally, emotionally, and with know-how—to negotiate. Unconditional capitulation of decision-makers is rare in community organizing campaigns. So, winning the campaign usually means negotiating an outcome that gives us much but not all of what we want. And there is a certain amount of professional and personal maturity in recognizing that neither victory nor defeat is ever perfect or permanent.

Assembling a Policy Brief

A policy brief is a document listing our main contentions and supporting evidence. The brief assembles the arguments and supporting evidence on both sides of our policy proposal (for reasons that will become clear momentarily). COC leaders and organizers use the brief in several settings and situations.

We structure the brief around the issues that cover all the essentials of the policy proposal. These are not issues in the way we think of them as organizers, but points of contention in an argument.

The brief can include three kinds of arguments:

Arguments based on definition—for example: “shelters for battered women and their children are a good investment” depends on the definition of what one regards as a good investment.
Arguments based on cause and effect—for example: “issuing large numbers of liquor store licenses in low-income neighborhoods leads to more crime and alcoholism” depends on whether we can prove (i.e., argue effectively) the causal relationship.
Arguments for action must answer four basic questions: Is there a need for change that justifies the action? Will the proposed action meet the need? Is the proposed action feasible? Will the benefits of the proposed action outweigh any harmful consequences?

The brief is a resource we use in a variety of ways, but in its raw form we never give it to the media, the policymaker, or the public.

The basic outline of the brief includes:

• Need for a change;
• Proposed plan for change;
• Feasibility of the proposed plan;
• Possible positive and negative consequences of the proposed change; and
• Rebuttal to the arguments against the proposed change (which is why our brief includes evidence on both sides of our policy proposal).

Motivating Decision-Makers

It’s essential to know a decision-maker’s views before a first meeting. Obviously, we can discover these from many sources, such as the web site of the decision-maker, archives of the local major daily newspaper (which are usually available online to subscribers), results of Internet searches on the decision-maker’s name, campaign contribution reports from the county clerk or secretary of state, the usual legislative voting and speech-making records, and books authored by the decision-maker.

How do we know what most influences an official’s decision-making? There are many self-reporting studies, but most are unmistakably subjective and rely on the candor of the subject. We certainly shouldn’t expect officials to admit, “my political career is more important to me than protecting the environment” or “it’s been personally very lucrative doing favors for big real estate and construction companies.”

So, what really motivates decision-makers? We’re cautious about relying on generalizations, but we use the following list to sensitize ourselves
to the possible motivations of each decision-maker:

• Anything that promotes career advancement;
• Avoiding pain and punishment (e.g., bad publicity);
• Engendering “good will” (with big contributors and the majority-constituency);
• Repaying outstanding political IOUs and acquiring IOUs;
• Acquiring and conserving electoral resources;
• One’s own definition of the “public interest”; and
• Others’ definitions of the “public interest.”

Decision-makers also favor various institutional roles for themselves, such as:

• Providing direct services by maintaining a competent and committed staff to help constituents resolve problems;
• Voting to support constituent-benefits by always opposing tax increases and service reductions;
• Introducing and supporting adoption of innovative and progressive policies;
• Co-authoring and actively supporting introduction and passage of legislation or bureaucratic rule-making; and
• Power-brokering and deal-making with other action-field players.

The root motivational-key to politicians, as Mark Leibovich has noted, is that “The interests of self-perpetuation drive nearly everything.”

Given our thinking about the motivations of a decision-maker, before formally proposing a policy or issue-position we ask ourselves what would be the best form to use. For example, should it be a form that we calculate will get media attention and create more public pressure, such as a billboard? Should we present it to the decision-maker in a private, preliminary negotiation? Or, might it be useful late in the campaign to submit our full, detailed proposal in the form of a specific legislative bill?

Lawmakers coming to our issue-position may respond more positively to a ready-made bill, saving them and their staff from the demands of authoring legislation they intend to submit and for which they hope to receive praise from their constituents.

Planning Traditional Media Campaigns

Frank Lloyd Wright reckoned that architects should only take a pencil in hand when they have a clear mental picture of every facet of their design. Similarly, one should never write a press release—the keystone in media work— before “cutting” the story. It’s the cut of a story that makes it interesting, exciting, and relevant. Humor and human interest are important elements to play up. Stories that uncover power inequality, such as attacks on the powerful by an underdog, are always popular; and highlighting the gap between words and actions, especially by the powerful who claim to be public benefactors, is usually newsworthy.

The keys in cutting the story are timing, action, and personality. The story should be breaking or, better yet, about to break; involve action, somebody or something in motion; and there should be a personality (which may also be the organization) demanding attention. Whether an organization has a celebration-picnic to mark the end of a successful campaign for city-subsidized solar panels or, instead, on Valentine’s Day, a “We Love Our Solar-Power Savings Day,” makes all the difference for news media, particularly on a slow news day. One of our favorite storycuts was the 1974-75 work of the California Electricity and Gas for People campaign that targeted the massive Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility. The leadership conveyed the story-cut in the name of the campaign: Turn PG&E Around—E&GP, Electricity and Gas for People.

When cutting the story, we should keep in mind the media for which we’re writing. Ordinarily, organizers subscribe to and consistently read, view, and listen to the media from which they want coverage. Ideally, we produce a press release that mimics the way the targeted media would typically handle the story, because we’re aiming for a news story, not an editorial.

The general guidelines for dealing with the media are:

• Be honest, accurate, and factual.
• Avoid distortions, barbed comments, and veiled threats.
• Don’t talk “off the record” or try to take back past statements.
• Prepare ahead for hostile media questions.
• Assume that reporters and editors covertly record phone conversations.
• Don’t lecture editors or reporters or ever lose your temper with them.
• Never try to recruit journalists to your cause, regardless of how friendly they are (because they may take such overtures as an insult to their professionalism).
• Recognize your interest in building relationships with reporters and editors in which they come to trust your professionalism.

Experienced organizers take advantage of media opportunities, reacting with phone calls or other communications to the media when supporting or opposing a story. The ideal is to react quickly when attacked, contacting the media and pushing our side of the story. We work to deliver written statements as soon as possible, and tie an action to our statement if possible. A statement opposing a new police practice, for example, is far more newsworthy if linked to an action that turns out hundreds.

We prepare leaders for unsolicited calls from the media. They need to understand that their role includes:

• Articulating clearly the campaign’s credential;
• Communicating our side of the story to the public first;
• Staying cool when questioned by hostile media representatives;
• Not lying, but also not volunteering anything unflattering unless unavoidable;
• Not arguing the merits of our campaign;
• Not getting sarcastic with media representatives; and
• Launching a media counter-offensive when feasible.

Finally, when the campaign succeeds, we don’t oppose decision-makers for taking credit in their press releases and media interviews. At the same time, we can take the credit in ours.

Misusing Social Media

Social media have opened an infinite universe of media campaign possibilities in the last dozen years. It’s clear that social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.—can be powerful tools, as confirmed by commercial marketing and partisan political campaigns, including voter-turnout on election day. These campaigns are far more efficient and effective for their purposes than their forerunner, email list-building and mass-broadcasting. Social-media campaigns may be well-suited to mobilizations for various purposes. But using these networks for sustained issue-campaigns is a more questionable proposition, affording mixed experience to date.

Winning issue-campaigns usually requires turnout that is predictable, controlled, and unrelenting. These characteristics can account for the ironically greater victories of traditional community organizing actions (in which turnouts rarely exceed 10,000) over one-shot mass mobilizations (in which turnouts can exceed hundreds of thousands or millions). Our understanding of the crucial difference between these two approaches is that relationships among members of competent, mature organizations, grounded in long-lived, face-to-face communities, drive community organizing actions. The mass mobilizations, on the other hand, are mostly social media-driven; they originate and continue mostly in transitory cyberspace associations, with the majority of participants rarely meeting face-to-face more than once in occasional marches and demonstrations.

Many of the Internet-based, social action organizations that rely on social media campaigns are well-known, but it’s difficult to verify their impact on specific policy reforms and resource allocations. The picture is unclear because it’s commonplace when a government or corporation shifts policy in a progressive direction, these organizations, many of which have promoted Internet fundraising on the issue, claim partial or full credit for the victory. But there’s rarely any independent verification of their claims, and their limited ability to influence the retrograde policies of the Trump administration suggests they are inflating their wins.

More problematic, unofficial online petitions have become the go-to fundraising method for Internet-based, nonpartisan political organizations, both progressive and reactionary. It’s not incidental that these petitions have uncertain effects on policy outcomes. They are reminiscent of the petitions widely used by door-to-door “social-action” canvasses of the 1970s and 80s, which the organizations dedicated chiefly to fundraising. Petitions then were a useful tool for door-knocking on multiple issues, but eventually householders discerned and rejected the petition-gambit to raise funds. They recalled the previous canvassing’s inflated rhetoric, grandiose political and economic policy objectives, and visionary promises for community transformation—all or most of which typically remained unfulfilled. Given enough time, even the politically naive came to see that the promised results of the petitions were not forthcoming. When that happened, potential contributors spurned both the fundraising method and the canvassing organizations that used it.

Most troubling ultimately, social-media-driven campaigns used for nonpartisan political mobilizations can create the mistaken belief by participants that their “social action”— ordinarily limited to signing a petition, making an online contribution, or attending a march—will demonstrate sufficient power to bring about a victory. It may also lead them to believe that more demanding commitments are not necessary.

Testifying at Legislative Hearings

Although the claimed purpose of legislative hearings is to gather information, legislators are usually well-informed through the work of their staff and through information provided to them by lobbyists. The legislative hearing, whether a city council discussion or public hearing by
a committee of the state legislature, gives lawmakers the opportunity to hear all sides of an issue and to ask questions and challenge witnesses in a brief span of time. It also gives them media exposure while posing as thoughtful, mature, and well-informed leaders.

There are several basic guidelines for testifying in legislative hearings. We should decide first whether it’s at all useful to testify at a specific hearing. It may not be if we’re only going to be a punching bag for a hostile legislator (unless it’s likely we’ll get sympathetic press coverage). We should find out why the hearing is at the scheduled time, which we may be able to learn from friendly lobbyists and advocacy groups. The timing may suggest handles that afford leverage on the issue. We should also check to see if our representative is on the committee, which increases the likelihood of our organization having an opportunity to testify.

If we’re not allowed to testify, we may submit written testimony, which we can also give to the media, and which may be just as valuable as testifying if media exposure is our main objective. We should stay focused on our media campaign purpose, which is to get our side of the issue out. We should also stay focused on our audience (whether the legislators, the news media, friendly committee members who need ammunition to support our position, etc.). We should make the effort to know who else is testifying at the hearing (the committee chairperson’s staff may be willing to share that information), so that we can know the arguments our opposition will be making.

Another one of those inflexible rules of lobbying is, “never engage in arguments with committee members”. They always have the last word, and you’ll look like a ten-year-old arguing with your parent if you lose your self-control. It’s obviously preferable to maintain your own dignity and allow decision-makers to maintain theirs.

Sometimes committee members try to engage us in debate. We should treat this response to our presentation as legitimate questioning, answering it from our prepared responses to common criticisms of our argument. In some cases, committee members ignore our arguments and instead attack our leaders, trying to make them look bad as individuals. Our prepared response has several points: making sure it’s a personal attack and not a misunderstanding; calmly restating our position, possibly adding an illustration; and, despite ad hominem attacks, treating him or her with respect, maintaining our own dignity. Committee members will occasionally raise issues entirely extraneous to our testimony. We answer briefly, then we get the subject back on track. We may get questions that are friendly, neutral, or hostile, which we cannot answer. We never fake it. We acknowledge that we don’t have the information at hand but will try to get it, and we strive to follow up promptly and thoroughly.

Maximizing the Power Tool

Over the course of these articles we have outlined several fundamentals of using the power tool that results from combining organizing and lobbying. These include:
• Investing in building a unified coalition;
• Doing a thorough inventory of your own resources and an action-field analysis;
• Knowing all the players, rules, procedures, and deadlines, inside and out;
• Taking the time to generate a winning strategy and strategic plan;
• Considering organizational mileage, and opportunities for both “wins” and “builds”;
• Preparing a complete policy brief, including all your adversary’s arguments;
• Targeting decision-makers commensurate with your actual power;
• Knowing the decision-maker’s position on your proposal before meeting;
• Planning and role-playing meetings and actions thoroughly ahead of time;
• Exploiting the timing of events that offer handles on your issue;
• Not short-changing your media campaign or allowing it to peak prematurely;
• Preparing to negotiate at the end of a campaign; and
• Expecting the need for follow-up to collect on opponents’ “promises.”

Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (, which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he teaches sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.

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