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A panel discussion on advocacy provides good information for advocating to upper levels of government

by Naomi Grant

A panel discussion on advocacy provides good information for advocating to upper levels of government

“We learned many things.”  So began Glenn Murray’s quick synopsis of a panel discussion on advocacy, hosted March 4, by reThink Green, in their Green Room.  A little over a dozen people attended this evening panel discussion, which focused primarily on advocacy to upper levels of government.  The event began with opening remarks by the three panelists:  Brennain Lloyd, long time project coordinator with Northwatch, Cathy Orlando, National Manager of Canada’s Citizen’s Climate Lobby, and Richard Eberhardt, Northern Ontario Organizer for the New Democratic Party of Canada.

Lloyd began by succinctly summarizing five steps of advocacy.  Most of the information that followed, both in opening remarks, and in response to questions to the audience, fell neatly into this simple and useful framework.

1.  Identify the specific decision you want.

All three panelists emphasized the importance of doing your homework and choosing your ask carefully.  “We learned to thoroughly research and (that) fully believing in your position is a must,” said Murray after the event. 

A common message was to make sure you ask something concrete, something they have the ability to do.  One example could be coming out to an event.

Lloyd expanded on this idea.  “When meeting with the decision maker, be clear on what you want in the immediate.  Put something forward they can do, then something a little farther along your goal, and be clear on your end goal,” she explained.  She used the example of advocating on the issue of site selection for burial of nuclear waste, where the immediate ask might be to hold a public consultation in a specific community, the medium term goal would be to have that community pulled out as a possible waste site host, and the long term goal would be to stop producing nuclear waste.

As this makes evident, specific asks and short term goals should always be in the context of larger goals.  “Believe in the change you want, and share your larger vision with others,” she advised.

2.  Identify who the decision maker is.

Just as important as identifying the decision you want is knowing who can make that decision.  “Be sure to talk to the right jurisdiction,” advised Eberhardt.  This is not always straightforward.  “Sometimes more than 1 level of government will be involved, sometimes you need to move a lower level of government to move the higher level of government,” said Lloyd.

However, Orlando also emphasized that “all politics is local”.  “Engaging with your local MP is a powerful tool,” she asserted, using the example of the work of Citizen’s Climate Lobby where local groups of volunteers build relationships with their MP’s.

According to Eberhardt, advocacy calls are not that common (most calls are for personal concerns).  “There is a lot of time on an MP’s schedule for that,” he informed the audience.  “They have the capacity to listen to you.  It is up to you.”  When calling for an appointment, they want to hear “who you are, your issue, and that it falls within their jurisdiction,” he explained.  Tell them you “want to meet to let us share our position and how we can work together.”    “Get the meeting,” he advised, adding that that may mean meeting with an advisor first.

Again, the importance of doing your homework was emphasized by all panelists.  Eberhardt enumerated some of the information you should be cognisant of during the meeting and in choosing your ask:  “What have they said before?  Who do they have to answer to?   How will supporting you impact them?   What considerations do they face?”   “Think through what you are asking of them and the consequences to them if they do it,” he reiterated.   “Giving them a petition and asking if they will read it into the record in the house is a good way to test their position,” he shared.  If they do, tape it and post it on-line to have them on record.

The decision maker will be influenced by many things including personal beliefs and party policy.  “They will want to make the decision that satisfies them personally and that causes them the least problems,” Eberhardt said.  “You want to be the most powerful influence you can to change how s/he votes and influences others.  It will be no surprise that they want their friends to be powerful and their enemies to be weak,” he continued.  He advised advocates to be “a powerful friend” by having allies and reaching out to the people around them (labour and social services in the case of an NDP representative for example).  “It comes down to influence, which comes down to power,” he concluded, reminding attendees that money is power in politics.

But what do you do if the meeting does not go well?  What if they are not on board?  “Don’t give up.  Be a careful listener.  Use your listening skills to find common ground,” advised Orlando.  She also advised people to be polite, know where their roadblock is, and make your ask right away and see where it goes from there.  In addition,  “go in with lots of social capital,” she said, urging people to keep getting the word out.

Eberhardt agreed.  “Just because the person in the office says no, does not mean it is the end,” he said,  “Be stronger – hold a town hall, get a petition, get in letters to the editor, have a strong movement – that is YOUR responsibility.”  In brief, return and try again from a stronger position.   If that does not work, find other decision makers, or replace them.

Lloyd shared another tactic.  “Stop them before they say no,” she suggested, explaining that it is harder to change a fixed position.  She also suggested giving them an easier fall back position, saying “You don’t ask your kids ‘do you want to wear pants’, you ask ‘do you want the blue pants or the red pants’.   Helping dismantle their roadblocks can also be helpful.   

Sometimes, party policy is the roadblock, and how to address that depends on the structure of the party.  Lloyd identified three routes to change: through the elected representatives (work with many MP’s at once); through the party researchers; and through party activists (working for change within the party).  According to Eberhardt, you need the support of all three to make change within the party.

3.  Identify your allies and your enemies.

All three panelists strongly agreed that a chorus of voices is much more effective than a single voice.  Lloyd listed “work in community,” as one of her three rules of advocacy, but added two cautions:  that alliance building does not dominate time and effort needed for the work itself, and not to ‘get lost politically’ when building alliances.

It is important to consider who else the decision maker will be hearing from on the issue (both positive and negative).  Mobilize those allies they will listen to.  Isolate, neutralize or be ready to respond to contrary messages.

The panelists agreed that difficult allies can be harder to deal with than enemies at times, and had different approaches to deal with this situation.   Lloyd advised directing them to something positive they can do.  “Keep them engaged but don’t give them the space to be the public messenger,” she said.  Orlando emphasized the importance of volunteer training.  “Provide guardrails,” she suggested, using the example of the talking points given to CCL volunteers.  CCL gives 3 training sessions per month.  This elevates the skills of volunteers and hones their talking points. 

Eberhardt cautioned people to have the political sense to recognize what’s going on if one decision maker champions your cause but is someone everyone else distances themselves from.  He advised acting quickly to be clear they don’t speak for you, to avoid losing other, more useful, allies.  Orlando reiterated the importance of staying non-partisan and of building relationships in person.  She also urged advocates to “ be a standard bearer for what you are working for – do NOT deviate”.

4.  Identify your message.  The message that will drive the decision you want.

Lloyd shared that people need to hear things three ways before” it sticks.”   Therefore, before meeting a decision maker, you should consider how you convey your message in three different ways to find one that they understand and that resonates with them.  She advised testing your language with allies and decision makers.

Of course, you want them to hear that message from many sources.  “You want the pattern of a trickle and then a flood,” she indicated.  The ‘trickle’ builds cumulative content to reach critical mass, she went on to explain.  That ‘trickle’ might be a continuous slow flow of phone calls, e-mails, etc on the issue.   At the right moment, you want a ‘flood’.

Orlando described a similar pattern, explaining how CCL  peppers the media on an on-going basis.  This assists with public education, and can also shift media positions.  “Remember that media outlets choose candidates to back during elections,” she said.

Letters to the editor do make an impact.  Lloyd indicated that even if they do not read it directly, it will show up in their daily media briefing.  On a scale of impact: Facebook posts rank 10-15;  letters to the editor 30-35;   editorials 60;  and face to face meetings 100, Orlando shared.

5.  Identify the moment.

Often, you want to “grab a hook,” explained Lloyd.  This hook might be a decision coming up, a crisis,  or media attention on the issue.  


Also shared that evening were tips on how to be effective at round table discussions when the government is gathering input (as they were that week on climate change policy).  Orlando advised bringing props and visuals, to be a facilitator if you have those skills, and to have representation at every table.  Lloyd recommended having a couple of key points you want to get through and take to others.  She also pointed out the importance of keeping your eye on the product coming out of the meeting.  “Watch how the meeting is being recorded,” she cautioned,  “make sure all the messages are captured,” adding that you might volunteer to be the note keeper.

The depth of experience of the panelists was evident throughout the evening and very much appreciated by the attendees.  “This is one of the most interesting and informative workshops I've been in. Thanks, everyone!” posted Charles Ramcharan.

A summary of the panel discussion is attached.

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