Data, Storytelling and Diverse Voices Help Streamline Advocacy Efforts

Group voice and social diversity message or diverse society speaking with one megaphone as a team communication and teamwork chat concept with 3D illustration elements.

This month’s roundtable focuses on advocacy work. PRNEWS met virtually with Rebecca Spicer, SVP, Airlines for America; Nick DeSarno, Senior Director, Narrative Strategies; and Abby Diebold, Communications Manager, Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ).

Key takeaways from the wide-ranging discussion include:

  • Find prominent voices to help support the cause and make it a "grasstops" effort;
  • Be prepared to demonstrate the impact of policy from a diverse set of voices;
  • Marry data and storytelling to break through with your message.

The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

PRNEWS: What are some of the biggest trends you've seen that have shifted the way organizations think about advocacy?

Abby Diebold, Communications Manager, RBIJ

Abby Diebold: Especially on the business side, the biggest shift we've seen is consumers now expecting brands to take a stand on social issues. There was a study that six in 10 Americans say it's not acceptable for companies to be silent...There is this new rule of businesses in normalizing stances on these social justice issues, but also this renewed need for businesses, from an economic standpoint, from a marketing standpoint, to be doing that work and to be engaging consumers.

The flip side of that is there has been a dramatic increase in how much businesses are trusted, and how much businesses are looked to be setting the standard for what advocacy looks like…We've seen a real shift in what is considered a business issue and what is considered the role of businesses weighing in on the broader social justice and policy reform landscapes.

Rebecca Spicer, SVP, Airlines for America

Rebecca Spicer: I think what's really impacting advocacy efforts is the change in the news cycle and the rapid pace at which news is disseminated, news is made, received and processed...

It's also because of that diversity of news outlets that there's a diversity of the storytelling and the presentation of an issue. That has heightened the awareness of issues, the speed of the issues and how they can proliferate quickly. It means that those of us on the communication side have to be more prepared than ever before. We have to anticipate that which we cannot anticipate, and it means we have to work that much more in unison with our government affairs colleagues, our policy shops, the legislative professionals and the legal teams.


Nick DeSarno, Senior Director, Narrative Strategies

Nick DeSarno: It’s always crisis mode. We're seeing the speed and tenor of news and misinformation [pick up].

You put out a press release and one group takes it the wrong way, or an employee uprising happens. It's part of our job to make sure that we're really responsive to our clients, but also that we're helping our clients be more nimble, agile and more integrated, so that the legal team is not caught unaware of something that the marketing or HR team is doing or rolling out.

We're also seeing a lot of grassroots campaigns turn into grasstops campaigns. Before it was, “We need a petition with 1 million signatures,” or “We need to hit 50,000 emails by the end of the month.” Now we're seeing that actually, it makes sense if we have just a few really sophisticated advocates speak on our behalf. It is going to carry the day more; they can talk to media, they can talk to a variety of lawmakers, and they're seen as trustworthy and reputable.

And we're just having to be smarter, quicker, faster. We are having to give our clients the bottom-line up front…instead of making a research document five pages, we're making it one page, and we're doing the analysis for [our clients] and saying, “This is what you need to know,” versus “Here's everything we found about this topic.”

PRNEWS: Have you seen an increase in actual advocacy efforts from organizations that maybe typically were outside that realm? And is there anything in particular that you specifically attribute that to; was it COVID or the social justice reckoning of the summer of 2020?

Spicer: I'll give an example of one from COVID. It's no surprise that it was the most challenging period in [the airline] industry's history… Our passenger levels were down 97%. It's truly remarkable that this industry is still around and flying today. But that is because of very efficient advocacy with leadership from this association, and our airline members, our carriers, brought their leadership in.

…We set up a war room here. Airline CEOs took off their brand hats, even though they are very intense competitors; they locked arms and rolled up their sleeves, and they said we have to unify in order to send a message to Capitol Hill and the administration of how dire the situation is.

And, Nick, what you just said about having the big voices advocating is important, but we also knew it was important to have the men and women whose jobs depended on government assistance…

…We had to pull out all the stops, whether it is the CEOs, or the men and women who are the backbone of the industry…From a comms standpoint, every industry was saying, “we need help; we're struggling.” We said “we have to be the squeakiest wheel...”

PRNEWS: In a crowded market, how do you break through with your messaging?

Diebold: It goes back to Nick's point about the increase in reliance on influencers and to this point of having somebody who is very prominent and vocal, who is going to be a real champion. In this new cycle, there are so many things that we could be focused on, and so many things that people could be asking for.

RBIJ was founded because the campaign community realized that businesses were a unique group that has unique leverage. Business leaders have a unique platform and a unique ability to communicate around these issues…

We take these actors who are prominent and recognized and who have this platform to speak about workforce issues that [the public isn’t] going to associate with workforce issues, like criminal justice reform, mass incarceration—the impact of having 70 million Americans with criminal records on the labor market.

Finding those narratives and finding those clear lines for people who need to be doing advocacy… is what we've found to be both the most effective in this cycle, where so many people are talking about so many different things all the time.

DeSarno:…For us, it comes down to having really good research, really understanding the data, and then marrying it to a really strong story and storyteller. We've built a research function here because we're realizing that other folks are not coming with that solid background data, whether it's a Morning Consult survey, or a focus group survey, or maybe it's just data we get from the industry itself. But marry it with a story that is authentic, real, and can get people's attention…

Spicer: …From a comms standpoint, we work to make it about others. So it’s not about Airlines for America; it’s not just about the survival of our member companies, but about the workforce. It's the pilots, the flight attendants, the mechanics; it's the 10 million indirect jobs…10 million is a great data point.

Nick, to your point, data is critical to the storytelling. But then how do you put a name and a face to that data point? So it's not just 10 million people, but it's the person shining shoes over at the airport…it's the person selling the concessions, who, when that facility is closed, isn’t getting a paycheck. It's the parking garage attendant, the Uber and Lyft drivers…And you start talking about the impact that a legislative solution [would have on] keeping the men and women of the airline industry on the job…That's a big deal. And that's what we talked about… policy is about people. That's what we really tried to emphasize, using the data to also guide that storytelling.

…Something else that's worth noting is that we really had to be creative, aggressive, talking about how we get earned media against a very crowded news cycle. How we use owned media and digital in a very strategic and streamlined manner, because we could not do paid media. There was no money in the coffers to do anything paid.

PRNEWS: So let's turn to tactics. Were there any specific strategies that you found most helped move your story further?

Spicer: We were constantly working the phones with reporters and constantly lining up third-party voices… [we didn’t] want to be the face of this. It's not about [Airlines for America]. It might be that there's a flight attendant who is willing to tell the story of what this means if he or she doesn't have a paycheck…

[I remember when] the original round of the CARES Act was about to expire. And we said, “What if we stage a press conference outside of the U.S. Capitol and we get Republicans from Capitol Hill, Democrats from Capitol Hill, labor leaders, CEOs from our airlines, and we had two pilots unions, two flight attendants, unions, the machinists, the mechanics…" and we were able to get amazing media coverage out of it.

DeSarno: It's not just what you're saying. It's where you're saying it, and how. And who's delivering it. What separates us from folks that are selling or marketing things is we have complex policy issues. And there are really niche reporters who know this issue really well…[and you need to] make sure that you are living and breathing your media ecosystem, that you're following all the right reporters on Twitter, that you're actively engaging the conversation, and then you're looking for those news hooks.

And then maybe it's reaching out to them off the record, to help build a story that gets you more media attention. And developing a relationship where you can come to them and say, “Hey, we're going to release this, we want to go with you as an exclusive because…you really understand our issues.”

Diebold: Being able to pitch with a diversity of voices and being able to have everybody lined up to talk [is important]…We work specifically on the business side, and so we get business leaders lined up ready to go…but the vast majority of reporters that I talk to, even if they're interested in covering that side of the story, they want to talk to somebody who would be impacted by policy. They want to talk to the district attorney's association about why they're supporting the policy. They want to talk to the legislator that’s sponsoring the bill…Often we're pitching in these niche subject areas, but [it’s also important to] be able to provide that broader context and make those connections, because you don't know what's going to resonate.

And back to [Rebecca’s] point about, trying to pull in the person who is shining shoes [at the airport]…you know, the child of somebody with a criminal record is someone that we're often talking about and somebody who has benefited from sealing in the past…different people are going to resonate with different things on both the reporter side and on the news consumer side…

PRNEWS: I want to ask about disinformation and misinformation, and how you proactively prepare for your campaigns or your causes being misconstrued or attacked.

DeSarno: You asked earlier about what might cause [an increase or] decrease in advocacy. It’s hyper partisanship and gridlock. We see that often, where companies, as much as they want to speak out on certain issues, are constantly faced with [thinking,] “everything that we say is going to be viewed by this group under this lens and this other group under that lens.” So audience mapping is incredibly helpful… because sometimes we can get caught in our own ecosystem.

…When people disagree with you in a company statement, they will form employee slack groups, and organize around an issue… It's not just monitoring The New York Times anymore. It's monitoring mommy blogs for misinformation around health care issues, for example. It's really understanding, where's the nexus…

Diebold: Also starting proactively, how you’re framing the issue, is more important now than ever. Figure out where's [your audience's] broad agreement; then, how do you frame that as your issue?

So, for us, there's a labor shortage; that is something there's pretty broad agreement on. How do you frame your issue within that?

There was a study by the Small Business Majority that found if you can get a business to agree that they are having trouble hiring, which the vast majority of them do, you can get them to support Second Chance hiring. If you don't get them to agree to that first premise, they're very unlikely to agree to the second. So figure out those base-level things that you can find agreement on…How you frame your issue is based on those rather than on premises that are going to later be disputed… And be prepared for all the backlash that you're going to get anyway. But be as proactive as you can about what conversations you’re inserting yourself into…

DeSarno: You're never going to make everyone happy. But you need to mitigate those risks, and when you do have folks who disagree with you, you need to show empathy to their position … If you can speak emphatically to those groups, you're going to have a much better chance of, maybe not winning them over to your side, but at least not being a detractor.