Looking Ahead: Technology and Government Affairs

Written By: Christopher R. Brown, CAE

As technology continues to develop at a very fast rate, social media in government affairs advocacy will also continue to expand. Failure to keep abreast of developing social media techniques will quickly leave government affairs executives behind as their ability to connect with potential advocates will lessen against the onslaught of social media messaging in many public policy debates.

Take for instance the actions last week with the Supreme Court, which undertook two cases surrounding the issue of marriage equality. It can be safe to say that this is a contentious issue with diverging viewpoints on the matter. The issue exploded on Facebook following the introduction of a red and pink modified version of the Human Rights Campaign equality logo. The image went viral when thousands of people changed their Facebook and Twitter profile images to speak out in support of marriage equality. Senator John Tester, a Montana Democrat, even announced his position on the subject on his Facebook page. Twitter was also buzzing on the topic of marriage equality before, during and after the Supreme Court proceedings. This is a major transformation from the days, not so long ago, when advocacy groups would gather at the Supreme Court building or on the National Mall, and hold signs supporting or opposing a public policy issue. While that still took place last week, the impact of social media adds an additional layer of complexity, as well as an avenue for citizen involvement, on high-level public policy issues.

The activity last week illustrates the sheer power that social media can have on an organization’s advocacy program. In this example, those who have discussed the issue and have a Facebook and Twitter account tend to be demographically younger. What this tells advocacy professionals is that they need to align their own organizations with the use of this technology platform in future advocacy activities, as many marketers have done already. Recently the New York Times Magazine published a story that discussed major differences in the use of technology in the 2012 Presidential campaign. The main premise was that Republicans are woefully behind in the development and use of technology in campaigns and need to vastly improve their performance in this area. Yet this article also illustrates how technology is used in campaigns and advocacy activities; if an organization wants to be relevant, it needs to embrace technology, and more importantly, have a defined strategy of how it will be used.

Technology in advocacy has changed tremendously since 2000. Prior to 2001, it was still common to mail a letter to a Member of Congress using the United States Postal Service and Capitol Hill offices were learning how to incorporate e-mail communications from constituents into their operations. The combination of the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill in 2001 with significant advances in technology and the use of the Internet completely changed this landscape. Advocacy professionals throughout the first decade of the 2000s saw grassroots communications switch from mailed letters to faxed letters to the extensive use of e-mail and online advocacy tools that allowed organizations to develop structures to mobilize their members and employees to communicate with lawmakers. The second half of this decade saw the introduction of Smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a host of other applications and online resources that can be used for advocacy purposes. The amazing things your members and employees can accomplish online, compared with 2001, is truly mind-boggling and is a ripe opportunity to use technology to harness your online advocates.

The explosion of discussion, posts and tweets on the marriage equality issue last week also shows the power of these systems to sway public opinion. Not having a social media response, let alone a consistent social media presence, can lead to disastrous results for your organization.