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The Future of DC Influence Must Include Digital Communication

The future of influence in Washington, D.C., is digital. This seems pretty obvious, right? But you would be surprised how often issue management strategy and tactics ignore the need to connect with congressional staff and other policy elites in a way that enables these individuals to control the information flow, tailor their preferences and easily share what they learn.

My team and I at APCO Insight, the research, strategy and measurement group at APCO Worldwide, regularly speak with policy professionals—including congressional staff—on a variety of topics. Focus groups, surveys and in-depth interviews enable us to keep our finger on the pulse of what matters for these policy elites. A key component of our intelligence gathering is understanding who they find influential, how they access information for their jobs and what works in influencing them and their boss.

Who Do Congressional Staff Find Influential?

Congressional staff and other Washington policy elites seek out subject matter experts to help them become—and stay—informed on policy issues, and receive insights they can share with members of Congress and colleagues. These subject matter experts can be found in trade associations, think tanks, advocacy organizations and among constituents. When asked who they trust, Hill staffers point to different organizations depending on the issue. For example, who they view as trustworthy on health policy is likely to be different than who they trust on trade matters. While there are certainly examples of broad-based organizations that employ subject matter experts (SMEs) across multiple topics and focus areas, these organizations represent only a portion of a wider influencer spectrum. Examining who staffers and members of Congress are following on social media is an excellent way to identify who their influencers are.

According to the Public Affairs Council’s (PAC) Surround Sound report, other trusted sources of subject matter expertise are the Congressional Research Service and the General Accountability Office—both trusted by about nine in 10 congressional and executive branch staffers. The PAC Surround Sound survey, which found that eight in 10 government staffers trust both trade associations and think tanks, is consistent with our own qualitative research where these are among the first groups mentioned when asked about who policy elites find trustworthy.

In addition to the professional SMEs, congressional staff look to their constituents to understand the impact of policy decisions. While Hill staff and members certainly listen to CEOs and business executives, they also appreciate the perspectives of rank-and-file workers and citizen activists. There is a reason why a popular lobbying strategy pairs a lobbyist with a constituent to meet with congressional staff and their members.

Finally, for many staffers, the media and original reporting provide important perspectives on an issue. APCO Insight surveys have found that two-thirds of Washington policy elites find The Washington Post, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are influential in their work.

How Do Congressional Staff Access Information?

Hill staff and executive branch personnel want information that is accessible and easy to share. Increasingly, they rely on social media and other digital information to inform policy. We hear this in our focus groups and the PAC Surround Sound survey found that two-thirds of these staff members spend at least 30 minutes a day on Twitter and Facebook. Moreover, about nine in 10 said Twitter and Facebook are effective ways to engage constituents. These findings also align with APCO’s 2019 TradeMarks study, which found that social media has increased in importance as an element defining trade associations’ public policy effectiveness.

When Hill staffers are using social media to get access to what SMEs are saying, they are exposed to social media advertising. The PAC Surround Sound survey found that 58% of congressional staff see policy ads multiple times a week and more than half read the ads. Our own research for clients has found unaided recall of digital ads across multiple platforms, including websites and social media, is generally between 25% and 35% and aided awareness typically reaches 50% to 60%. These surveys show the ads tend to positively impact opinions on the issues and organizations running them.

Hill staffers are also willing to seek out information from SMEs at trade associations, think tanks and other advocacy groups by going to the organizations’ websites. APCO research has found Hill staffers are interested in open source data they can evaluate themselves and documents they can download. They will watch videos and animated explainers. It is important to let staffers know the time investment required with each piece of content, provide a summary, allow them to go deeper as they want and make the information easy to download and share.

What Works?

The data and qualitative research confirm that digital communications, including social media, websites and online advertising, are effective ways to engage congressional and executive branch staff and provide them with the information they need in their work. These techniques help companies and other advocates to be viewed as subject matter experts and condition the environment for policy elites to be receptive to more traditional advocacy techniques.

The PAC Surround Sound survey indicates that personally visiting congressional and executive offices—including during lobby days—is an effective technique as are traditional grassroots techniques like email, phone calls and postal mail.

When developing advocacy campaigns, organizations will do well to consider the impact of integrating digital communications intended for policy elites into their grassroots efforts and direct lobbying activities. Doing so will deepen their impact and put organizations in a better place to succeed.

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