In-person lobbying is here to stay

Digital advocacy has grown during the pandemic, but being in the room still matters

Medical students gather outside the Capitol in 2011 as part of the American Medical Association’s Medical Student Lobby Day. Washington will soon undergo a reawakening of in-person advocacy, Ekstein writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Medical students gather outside the Capitol in 2011 as part of the American Medical Association’s Medical Student Lobby Day. Washington will soon undergo a reawakening of in-person advocacy, Ekstein writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 11, 2021 at 6:00am

More than seven months after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, added security fencing has come down. The COVID-19 pandemic continues, but congressional and executive branch offices have begun to welcome back visitors.

Despite the return to in-person meetings, there are rumblings about the demise of traditional government affairs work. A recent Public Affairs Council report said, “In-person meetings with federal policymakers will become more rare.” The council’s survey found that 54 percent of government affairs executives believe the pandemic will bring about a decline in traditional lobbying and an increase in digital advocacy.

Not so fast.

Importantly, that percentage was down 7 points, from 61 percent in 2020. There is little doubt that digital advocacy, remote fly-ins and Zoom check-ins with legislative staff are here to stay, but in-person government affairs work will still be integral to policy success. Make no mistake: Washington will soon undergo a reawakening of in-person advocacy.

Digital tools are just an introduction. Think of it this way: About 45 million Americans use dating apps. While research shows that relationships that started online are stronger, these unions did not exist only on the screen. At some point, a couple cemented their relationship over dinner and a movie because it’s rare, if not impossible, to find a committed partner using only the screen.

Lawmakers and their staff also are drowning in screen-centered information. According to a March 2019 survey, 58 percent of Capitol Hill staffers reported seeing policy ads several times a week. Most read these messages, but when asked to compare the effectiveness of different advocacy techniques, 83 percent rated personal visits to Washington as the most effective form of advocacy, followed very closely by visits to district offices at 81 percent. Three-quarters of respondents said in-person visits from lobbyists were effective.

Voters also believe in in-person interaction and are likely to demand it from their representatives. According to a report released by the Congressional Management Foundation in March, about two-thirds of voters said telephone town halls were a good way for lawmakers to hear from constituents, but voters still preferred in-person meetings.

The report also found that a majority of voters who had contacted Congress felt their views were not adequately considered by lawmakers and their staffs. Sometimes an email just does not cut it. Indeed, the report concluded, “[D]emocracy needs something better than email for facilitating healthy discussions on weighty public policy questions affecting millions of lives.” (The same can be said for text messaging.)

In contrast, a personal phone call can matter. One legislative director told the Congressional Management Foundation, “I have personally called constituents at their homes more since telework began than during any other time in this office. And I know other co-workers are doing the same. I think the more direct contact we provide to people, the more they feel heard.”

The private sector clearly believes that in-person interaction matters. While both small and large companies are working hard to be more flexible with their employees, businesses are eager to get people back into the office. They believe that in-person interaction is good for the company — and its employees. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey from January, 68 percent of executives said an employee should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain a distinct company culture.

Additionally, new entrants into the workforce believe they need to be in the office to learn. The PwC survey found that respondents with zero to five years of experience were more likely to want to be in the office more often. Meanwhile, a 2015 Chinese study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that while individuals who worked from home were 13 percent more productive, they were also less likely to get promoted.

Being in the room matters. Digital tools enhance persuasion, knowledge gathering and relationship building, and they do improve quality of life for shoe-leather lobbyists and legislative staff. Those of us trying to persuade lawmakers on Capitol Hill need to get smart about digital tools and stay on the cutting edge. But we cannot rely on these tools alone.

To deepen our relationships, the phone is almost always better than email, and in-person is always better than online.

Dan Ekstein is a partner at Sagac Public Affairs. For more than 20 years, he has helped nonprofit and for-profit organizations, including Capital One and JPMorgan Chase, expand their advocacy efforts. He is a former president of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees.