When the Missouri statewide association wanted to pass a bill to smooth the way for rural broadband service, CEO Caleb Jones turned to social media to build grassroots support and push it to victory in the state legislature.

“There’s nothing as powerful for legislators as hearing from the guy you have coffee with once a week, the woman you see at church every Sunday, or the parents of the kids your kid plays basketball with,” says Jones, who served in the Missouri House for six years before taking over at Missouri Electric Cooperatives. “Those are the people you need to activate to get a lawmaker’s attention.”

The Missouri co-ops won more than just that single legislative battle when they stepped up their social media efforts in 2018, Jones says. They built a statewide grassroots network that remains engaged and can be activated time and again through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

NRECA is working to replicate that strategy to expand the influence of co-ops on a national scale.

“We have a renewed emphasis on building our grassroots program using the best and newest information-technology tools,” says Louis Finkel, NRECA’s senior vice president for government relations. “There are more than 10,000 interest groups and trade associations trying to communicate to Congress and the administration. We need to find a way to break through that noise by making sure our members’ voices come through clearly.”

NRECA is exploring strategies to discern which methods best energize the communities that are most likely to rally in support of issues important to co-ops, Finkel says. And with a new Congress, and possibly a new administration, coming to power next year, he says, the clock is ticking.

“It is critical that we are prepared for January of 2021.”

‘It’s okay to take risks’

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for grassroots programs, preempting or curtailing in-person events across the country. But it’s also had a positive effect, spurring creative new digital strategies that associations can use going forward, says Nick DeSarno, director of digital and policy communications at the Public Affairs Council.

DeSarno says the National Association of Realtors replaced its annual “fly-in”—where about 2,500 realtors travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress—with a virtual Capitol Hill Day that attracted 25,000 online participants. Association members were able to talk to lawmakers through video conferences.

In another case, the International Association of Privacy Professionals posted a video stream on LinkedIn to educate its members about the latest issues. It drew more than 20,000 views and 1,000 comments, DeSarno says.

“Instead of doing a long, wordy email, they tried something new to engage people, and it worked,” he says, and that success spurred the Public Affairs Council to try a half-dozen similar events.

That doesn’t mean associations should give up on email appeals to their members, he says, but they should add new strategies to the mix.

“Now is the time to be scrappy, try new things, and be innovative,” DeSarno says. “Folks need to realize it’s okay to take risks, even if they fail a little before they find what works.”

Storytelling is crucial

DeSarno emphasizes that regardless of platform, the key to successful grassroots efforts remains telling a strong story that shows lawmakers the impact of an issue on their constituents.

“Local stories with local data,” he says.

Legislators crave personal anecdotes and statistics from their communities that they can cite to show they are making sound public policy decisions, DeSarno says.

“You don’t hear members of Congress saying, ‘I’m doing this because I met this amazing lobbyist,’” he says. “But you will hear them say, ‘My constituents told me this, and I’m taking action to help them.’”

Jones at the Missouri statewide says local voices can be especially persuasive in changing a lawmaker’s mind on an issue.

“Having someone they know from their hometown reach out to them is much more effective than just hearing from the statewide association,” he says.

Thornier issues ahead

Jones cautions that the key to building a grassroots network through social media is to think beyond a single campaign. The Missouri statewide association and individual co-ops worked together to get consumer-members to follow their local co-ops’ social media pages. The co-ops then used those platforms to educate members about key issues and build trust.

“Now they’re part of something,” Jones says. “When someone attacks a co-op on social media, we get five, 10, 100 members that fight back, without us even asking. We have advocates out there ready and willing to step up for us.”

Finkel says that’s especially important when co-ops are lobbying Congress on contentious issues. Two of NRECA’s most important legislative victories in the past year were on the RURAL Act and the SECURE Act—bills that were crucial to co-ops but of little interest to anyone else, meaning they faced limited opposition.

Congress passed the RURAL Act in December, protecting more than 900 electric cooperatives from the risk of losing their tax-exempt status when they accept government grants for disaster relief, broadband buildouts, and other programs that benefit co-op members.

At the same time, lawmakers approved the SECURE Act, saving co-ops more than $30 million in pension insurance premiums paid to the federal government.

Co-ops are likely to face thornier issues in the next Congress, Finkel says.

“There’s a climate change debate that’s coming,” he says. “We need to ensure that we are well positioned to effectively carry our voice to Congress so that co-ops are not economically disadvantaged. To do that, we must increase the number of voices speaking with a consistent message.”

NRECA and its member co-ops are also unlikely to have the luxury of time that they had to pass the RURAL and SECURE acts, Finkel says.

“While we were really effective in winning passage of those bills, we could do much better,” he says. “We need to connect with more people. We need to embrace the digital tools now available through social media to bring our message to the right communities so we can share information accurately and quickly to make a real impact.”