The Advocacy Strategy

For the past four years, I have been a member a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting mesothelioma, a rare cancer that my father passed away from. As a member, I travel every June to Capitol Hill with an advocacy group to lobby for increased mesothelioma funding and awareness. With the semester coming to a close and summer fast approaching, I have begun to look forward to this annual summer activity. Alongside this anticipation, however, comes an all-too-familiar frustration that this summer will be just like the last, and that members of Congress will remain largely unreceptive to my requests.

Based on personal experience, although many senators and congressmenon the Hill are open to listening to an advocacy group for the allotted fifteen-minute time slot, it is impossible to ensure that theywill retain the information presented to them, or that the promises they make will in fact come to fruition.Even if the group is fortunate enough to actually meet with the senators or congressmendirectly, instead of the usual inattentive representative, there is still a slim chance of instigating action.

This is not to say that all lobbying efforts prove unsuccessful or that advocates like myself will always wind up talking to representativeswho care more about what is being served in the cafeteria than their constituents’ issues. It is to say, rather, that there seem to be vital flaws in our political system that severely limit many advocacy efforts.

The real issue with the system, and perhaps the issue responsible for the recurrent glazed look in the representatives’ eyes, is that the policies of politicians are not often subject to change. Too often they are decided ahead of time by strict adherence to the party line or the behind-the-scenes quid pro quo of the cloakroom.Seeing as it is exceedingly difficult for advocacy groups to altera politician’s stance, it is instead necessary to rely on more subtle tactics. This system can, in fact, be manipulated so long as advocacy groups implement a strategy. Their aim must be to emphasize their personal afflictions as a result of their cause, while at the same time remaining succinct and polished in their delivery.

Judging from my previousendeavors, the most effective lobbying tactic is to connect with a representative or politician on a personal level. Simply put, sympathy sells. In a world filled with staunch political figures, one often forgets that politicians possess emotions that, when appealed to, can incite greater change than a presentation of statistics or data. For example, when asked back in 2011 why he supported the mandatory administration of a cervical cancer vaccine to sixth-grade girls in Texas, Governor Rick Perry answered, “I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had Stage 4 cervical cancer.”Despite the controversyraised by this issue and Perry’s later decision to rescind the mandate, the governor’s actions served as proof of the effectiveness of persuasive lobbying tactics.

Relying on the sympathy card alone, however, does not ensure that one’s issues are placed at the forefront of a politician’s agenda. The constant recitation of my personal experience with family loss due to mesothelioma, for instance,did not immediately result in increased funding or a ban on asbestos, its cause. Concision and professionalism are also key. If politicians are only human, then they are undoubtedly influenced by the conduct and physical appearance of a lobbyist or advocacy group. It is imperative, therefore, to dispel the herd of activists clad in their organization’s paraphernalia in favor of a select few polished lobbyists who are dressed professionally and relay their stories with concision.

In essence, although the central aim of advocacy efforts is to cause political change, one must first conform to this sphere in order to have any influence on it. Just as the politicians’ lack of policy flexibility is deliberate (in many cases, it is necessaryin order to succeed in getting reelected), the efficacy of an advocacy group must lie in a deliberatestrategy of personalization, concision, and professionalism. When all is said and done, one must play by the rules in order to change them.

Even with lobbying tactics firmly established, however, there is still reason to question the value of advocacy and lobbying as a whole. As a process heavily reliant on strategy, advocacy runs the risk of having itstacticscome to nought. Despite whatever unpromising odds a lobbying group may face, there exists great promise in their ability to induce change. Even an advocacy group such as mine, whichlobbies for a cancer whose rarity has resulted in a diminutive amount of public knowledge, can never predict when our efforts will be met with receptivity and optimism. One visit may be all it takes to achieve a desired response. As a result, our presence on Capitol Hill has never diminished, and will never diminish, until our demands are met to the fullest extent. For while sympathy, concision, and professionalism are vital components of the lobbying process, perseverance is the fundamental element of an effective advocacy campaign.

Aria N. Bendix ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.