Social Lobbying? Sounds Familiar

The always wonderful Maddie Grant directed my attention to a recent blog post by TechCrunch’s Semil Shah entitled The Dawn of Social Lobbying. The basic point of the piece is that big-moneyed lobbying where “suits” (his word, not mine) are paid hefty sums to peddle influence is being upstaged by an emerging phenomena known as social lobbying.  Social lobbying utilizes networks to move or defeat legislation.  I would argue that social lobbying has always existed.  It’s called grassroots lobbying.

Grassroots lobbying involves networks of individuals with a shared interest who outreach to their legislators in support of or to defeat a particular measure.  No association lobbyist in good conscience can claim that any legislative success was based solely on their work.  I can go to the Hill and talk about the technical aspects of the bill (i.e. how much the bill will cost the government, how many people would be affected, who supports it…).  However, my grassroots lobbyists give the issue a voice and a face.

I’m currently working with one of my committees on grassroots visits to discuss the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP).  MFP is the only federal program that provides grants to support the training of ethnic minority mental health professionals.  I’m neither a psychologist nor MFP Fellow.  When I go on my lobbying visits, I talk about how cuts to the program would decrease the number of minority psychologists in the field.  When my committee members go on their visits, they talk about how the fellowship allowed them to provide services to underserved communities where English is the second language or conduct research on minorities and HIV/AIDS.

While grassroots advocacy has been around for a while, I do agree that the use of social media in this area is fairly new and sorely needed. According the Congressional Management Foundation, Hill offices are being overrun by constituent mail including email grassroots alerts.  As a result, Members of Congress and their staff are increasing turning to Facebook and Twitter to gauge interest in legislative issues.  The recent debate over SOPA and PIPA serves as a great example of using social media at the grassroots level.  It should provide lessons for association lobbyists trying to break through the glut of messages going to the Hill.


9 thoughts on “Social Lobbying? Sounds Familiar

  1. Agreed on all points.

    What’s interesting is that SOPA/PIPA were so “easily” influenced .. by grassroots lobbying or what appeared to be mainly grassroots. I wonder why it was so successful and why other grassroots lobbying is not. There’s got to be more to this!

    How are associations using grassroots social lobbying?

    (I’ve been a grassroots lobbyist since I was a little girl! My first attempt at influence was in the ’50s when I tried to get my grade school teachers to vote for Adlai Stevenson bec. my parents believed so strongly in him.)

    1. Thanks for your comment Joan! SOPA/PIPA worked so well because it was an issue that would affect the internet and by extention social media. Even if you were the most casual internet/social media user, you knew about this issue. Bloggers started talking about this months ago, followed the issue, did their research and used their followers/subscribers to spread the word. Also, this is one of those rare moments when the average person finally saw and understood how easy it was to advocate. You didn’t have to write a letter or send an email. A simple tweet that can be retweeted by other would do. SOPA/PIPA also showed us that Members of Congress are paying CLOSE attention to social media.

      I may do an upcoming post on what we can learn from this as association professionals. We’re not utilizing social media for grassroots as we should.

      1. Thanks for that explanation. At the same time, there had to have been some money behind even the grassroots lobbying to be such an influence! Not that there’s anything wrong with that….

        And yes, please, write about associations use of social media which they are not doing in many ways.

  2. Two thoughts. First, from an American League of Lobbyists perspective, I think that social lobbying is traditional grassroots in a new format. Tweeting a member of Congress or posting to their Facebook page is the new form of sending an email or placing a call, but the difference is that when you use social media it is a public act. While you can show proof of an email, it is a private action where one person sends to another person a message in an instant of time; Tweeting a Congressional office takes that ask and puts it essentially on a public bulletin board. What makes SOPA unique is that sites that previously had been discreet or nonexistent in their advocacy efforts joined a public movement, a rarity that impacted everyone’s web usage.

    Now, putting on my ASAE hat, I think this will make for an interesting discussion at the ASAE fly-in, where we’ll actually implement social lobbying in tandem with in-person lobbying. It will be interesting to see if one is more effective or if they can work together in tandem.

    1. Thanks for your comments Robert. I would like to see social work in tandem with in-person lobbying. We can’t get away from the face-to-face meeting, but need to have other options available when an in-person meeting is not possible. Now that most Members of Congress and their staff are on social networking sites, it would be very difficult to pull back.

  3. Hello there. I wrote the original article in TechCrunch. I should point out that the point I’m making is not analogous to “grassroots” lobbying or netroots. Here, my argument is that the sum of one’s network power will eventually trump a candidate’s or cause’s financial power.

    1. Hi Semil,
      Thank you for commenting. I didn’t expect it. Yes, that was the point you were making. I decided to take a different view and focus on just the idea of social lobbying. I had planned to discuss the financial aspect, but that could be a blog post in and of itself.


  4. I don’t think this type of grassroots lobbying will trump a candidate’s or cause’s financial power – especially if that candidate or cause is using it, too. But it will make it easier to conduct that type of lobbying and do more to even the playing field than was possible before.

    The strength of the effort, as Robert explained, is that the public nature of the contact cannot be ignored and it can be used to trigger additional public contacts.

    But just like a fly-in, by itself, has minimal impact, “social lobbying” has limits too and can be far more effective when combined with other forms of direct and grassroots efforts.

    1. Thanks for your comments David. I agree that social/grassroots lobbying must be part of an overall lobbying effort along with traditional lobbying and other advocacy methods.

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