Thursday, June 1, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: On-line Tools

While you will always hear me singing the praises of actions like sitting down with your members of Congress face to face, I recognize that isn't every mother's cup of tea. What is a busy mom to do? Enter the online tools! I'm alternately a fan and a critic of internet tools that help connect people to elected officials with ease. Despite the "Advocacy Made Easy" name of my blog series of "how-to" posts, the truth is that when it comes to activism, easier doesn't necessarily mean better. Senators and representatives tend to be more influenced by actions that take visible effort on the part of their constituents. I love the on-line tools as an entry point for beginning advocates. I just don't want activists to stop there!

The greatest benefits of these tools can be found in these situations:
  • An issue is moving quickly and needs to reach a lot of advocates fast 
  • A person is so intimidated by other advocacy methods or strapped for time that he/she would not take any action at all without online tools
  • An organization wants to build awareness about an issue
  • An organization wants to build up a database of people who care about the issue
In these circumstances, online advocacy tools are a good thing. However, we should be aware of are limits to the impact of these strategies, so that people who are blessed with more availability take the time to learn more effective ways to raise their voices.

Let's take a look at three of the most common ways to advocate online and explore their pro's and con's...

1. Online Petitions
You've probably see petitions on your friends' Facebook pages. Autofill in your address, click one button, and your done! Here's an example of a recent one. 


So easy! Well, not so fast. I truly believe petition organizations actually do send the petitions in, but I think they have become more of a marketing tool. When the ONE Campaign first started doing these, it was pretty new. Back then, offices really sat up to take notice when an online petition had 100,000 signatures. Now, the internet landscape is pretty flooded and offices know how easy it is and are wise to the reality that people can game the system by making up multiple email addresses. I think the main purpose is really to collect your information, so they can put you in the database for more petitions from their client and/or target you for fundraising asks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good for groups to find likely advocates and then urge them to take a next step by donating or taking a deeper action later!

Pro-tip: If you decide you want to sign online petitions, give them a different email than your main personal address. You know...the one you give to online stores and political candidates, so you won't see all their junk mail? You may well want that future information, but I'd rather have it in a different account to check at my leisure instead of having my personal inbox flooded. 

2. Resistbot
This free tool has been getting a lot of attention this year. With a promise to help you "write Congress in under 2 minutes," this app is engineered to be an easy, daily method for a texting generation to communicate with your U.S. senators. Once you sign up at the Resistbot website, you can use your phone texting function to type "resist" and send it to 50409. A friendly, automated bot will ask for your name and zip code. The zip code is used to determine who your public officials are. Then, just type in your message. The automated system will then fax your message to your U.S. senators. I used Facebook messenger for this exchange to send in a message about Medicaid. 

Cool!! And yet...this is not without it's limitations. Until you stick with the app long enough to unlock functions like mailing a physical letter to Congress, you're stuck with faxing. Offices are quite savvy and know they can defeat the bot by 1) changing their fax number or 2) simply turning off the machine. 
Guess which of my senators is the biggest target for 
Resistbot and chose to unplug!

Then, once you unlock the mailing app, that brings us to the next kind of tool...

3. Web Generated Emails
The upside is that you can comfortably type away at your keyboard. You can copy and paste your talking points from a different website. You don't even have to use postage! I recommend this to my elderly advocates who find it physically painful to actually handwrite many letters. Here's an example of one from the CARE website.
A customized, personal email is pretty good way to get to your member of Congress quickly. The problem comes up if you don't change the language and it reads exactly like all the other emails that were automatically generated. Offices know that this kind of action is pretty easy to do AND that it is easy for them to automatically sort them and send you an automatically generated response. Your opinion does get tallied with others, but it's kind of like robots talking to each other. You will have more impact if you re-write the sample e-mail in your own voice, hit print, and then mail your messages to the local district office of your member of Congress. (Don't send it to Washington D.C. where it will get held up for weeks as it's screened for Anthrax) Then, an actual human will have to open your letter, read it, and forward it to another human who has to respond to it. The more human power they have to put into it, the more they take notice of it because it takes staff away from other priorities. 

Also, it may sound odd in this era of keyboarding and poor handwriting, but it really is even better if you can handwrite your letter and mail it. Staffers report that members are more moved by a handwritten letter because they know you cared enough to take the time to write each word instead of cutting and pasting. It's a connection to the human on the other side. Sometimes, my young grade-school advocates (and one highly creative adult!) will even use markers and pretty pens to make their letters stand out. I think that's all kinds of awesome!

4. Online "Letter to the Editor" Tools 
This is my FAVORITE kind of online action! Letters to the editor in your local paper are great advocacy tools because it shows the member of Congress that your community is talking about your issue publicly. Your letter goes out to thousands of people at once via local media! In addition, you can have friends and neighbors print out the letter and mail it to your member of Congress saying that they read it and agree with you. However, most people don't take this action because it's pretty daunting to come up with a succinct description of your issue in less than 200 words. A tool like this gives you a nice template that you can customize and send in to your paper directly from the website. How cool is that! 

Here's an example from www.RESULTS.org about U.S. health care...

Just be sure to rephrase things in your own voice and don't just copy it word for word. If more than a few people submit a letter an editor can recognized as copied, you run the risk of not being published and having a bad reputation at your paper.

Re-Cap
Are these on-line tools better than nothing? Yes! But remember, Congressional offices are run by smart people and they are understand about easy shortcuts. The more effort you put into an advocacy action, the more they can see you care and the more impact it will have on your member of Congress. Here's a handy chart of responses from Congressional staffers and members of Congress about which actions have more influence on them if the member has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue. As you can see, an in-person visit from constituents is the gold standard. It's the hardest to do and has the most influence!

NOTHING takes the place of a human to human interaction. If they hear your voice or look at your handwritten words, staffers know that you took the time to do it yourself. You are not an online "bot." They have to take the time to listen or read. By all means, use easy online tools, but don't just pat yourself on the back thinking your work is done for the day. 


I firmly believe that some offices rely on constituents who oppose them just getting bored of calling or writing every day. Don't let them be right. 

So, make the online tools an "and," not an "or." Look into your children's eyes, remember what it is you're fighting for, and recommit yourself to making a phone call or writing a real letter every day. You wouldn't trust their care-taking to a bot, would you? So, don't trust their future to one either.