No this isn’t the age-old question about the chicken or the egg.  It’s about developing a civic campaign strategy, and the order in which we tackle crucial steps along the way.

So which comes first – messaging or grassroots tactics? Advertising or fundraising? Research or coalition development?  These can be confusing items for any civic campaign – even more so when they’re being developed “by committee” at the hands of a broad, diverse coalition.

I have found that, in addition to the obvious need of first developing a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish (or what success would look like), it is important to start with two fundamental questions when trying to influence lawmakers and other key civic leaders to make a decision:

  1. How is the decision going to be made (i.e. what is the process by which it will be reached)?
  2. Who is going to make the decision (i.e. who is the true target audience for your campaign)?

Let me give you three examples of why asking these questions first, at the very beginning of a civic campaign, is absolutely crucial.

Legislators are key, but go even more local

A client was working to persuade Pennsylvania lawmakers not to make cuts to crucial state-funded human services programs.  The leaders of the civic campaign realized immediately that success meant convincing our state legislators that the cuts were a bad idea.  Working with limited time and resources, some got smart and argued that the campaign should be focusing only on legislative leaders – i.e. caucus leaders and Representatives/Senators in key districts.

However, as the campaign was formulating its strategy, we came to the conclusion that an effort led by nonprofit human service organizations and consumers would not have the clout needed to sway the legislative leaders.  The key would be identifying and recruiting other local elected officials who were either supporters or perceived opponents of the legislative leaders – local officials who would be the ones feeling the most pain from the cuts.  The answer suddenly seemed obvious: county commissioners.

These elected officials would be the ones forced to actually implement the cuts in human service programs and lay people off if the legislative leaders cut funding at the state level.  Understanding our target audience directed the entire message and strategy – and it paid off by giving the campaign a totally new avenue by which to reach its targets.

Legislators are key, but go higher

Another client was fighting terrible regulatory changes that produced devastating results for their member organizations and their consumers (older adults).  While these regulatory changes were a result of legislative approval, the only person who could fix the situation wasn’t one who caused it.  The fix would have to come from even higher up – the Governor himself.

The issue was complicated, brand new, and had little time to get fixed. So while the Governor was the key decision maker, we needed to find a messenger.  Thus in the end, our true target audience wasn’t the legislature, and it wasn’t even the Governor – it was the editorial boards of the major news outlets across the State.

If we could make them understand the issue and its devastating impact, they would write about it; if they wrote about it, they would give it instant credibility; and if it had credibility, it would move the Governor to action. Once again, understanding our target audience directed the entire message and strategy, and paved the way to success.

15 out of 1.2 million people

In the second largest county in Pennsylvania, the County Executive was proposing a $5 million cut to child welfare programs, a cut that would result in losing another $17 million in matching dollars from the state.  Poor, working families would have been hit hardest by the loss of funding, and thousands of kids would lose access to services that were often the only thing keeping their family afloat.

A campaign was convened, immediately springing into action to combat the cuts. To us, spending $5 million to get $22 million made sense, and at first, our reaction was to develop a strategy to convince the County Executive to simply reverse his budget.  However, it quickly became obvious that this was not an option, and pursuing it further was a strategic dead-end.

Our second option was to rally the masses, which we eventually did.  But where would we target their passion?  After careful analysis, we realized that the real decision was in the hands of 15 members of County Council – and of those 15, we really only needed the support of 10 to reverse the cuts.

Once we understood who the true decision makers (i.e. our real target audience) was, all of the strategy, messaging and tactics flowed from there.  The most effective message wasn’t about the poor kids – it was about leaving the $17 million in the hands of faraway bureaucrats rather than at the disposal of local council members who would lose a chance to invest in their community.  Once again, understanding our target audience directed the entire message and strategy – and led to success.

So while we’ll leave the chicken or the egg question for another day, it’s obvious what has to happen first when it comes to civic campaigns.  Decide the “how” and the “who” before anything else – and the “what” will fall into place from there.