There are four key elements to successfully dealing with legislative issues-timing, education, activism and media.
Most of the time, the legislative issues that impact a retailer’s business will motivate them to send a message to their elected officials and an alert to customers, but not much more. But when a bill has the potential to fundamentally change the way our industry does business–for better or for worse–more is required. In those instances, a well-planned, well-executed issue campaign can be the difference between success and failure.
So, what makes for a successful issue campaign, and how can retailers get involved? There are four key elements to a well-planned issue campaign: timing, education, activism and media. It is not a coincidence that these elements can be remembered using the acronym TEAM–an effective and engaged team is the fifth element necessary to make the other four work.
Ideally, an issue campaign is organized as early as possible. The side that weighs in on an issue first gets to define the terms of the debate. The closer you are to a vote or a resolution when you begin, the more likely you are to be discussing the issue using the other side’s preferred language and the less time you have to make your case. Would you rather be talking about a sales restriction in terms of “consumer protection and freedom” or “corporate greed and disregard for safety?”
A retailer’s involvement in an issue campaign begins before the campaign gets underway and continues throughout. As the local eyes and ears of the industry, retailers are positioned to see and hear about legislation even before it is proposed. The sooner they share that intelligence, the more rapidly the industry can formulate a response. Once things are underway, a retailer’s reports on response and changes on the ground can be essential to the direction of the campaign.
There are at least two sides to every issue, and the side that is most convincing generally wins. Public opinion can have a significant influence on elected officials, so it is essential that retailers share their message with the public through every channel possible. In a service- and retail-driven industry like ours, that begins on the floor, continues at the register and is reinforced at home via social media and word of mouth. A well-informed staff, clear and catchy handouts, and a well-honed message are all necessary.
That being said, everyone from manufacturers to distributors to affiliated organizations has a role to play. We can all participate in the education process by contacting our elected officials directly and encouraging everyone we work with to do the same. We can also work together to form coalitions that demonstrate the broad and often underestimated impact of legislation.
So, a retailer is in the fight and has shared their message…now what? It’s time to turn up the heat in the form of activism. Elected officials measure your importance by the numbers you can turn out, whether it’s letters of support (or opposition), testimony at a public hearing, or attendees at a rally.
Retailers should begin with their existing contact network, reaching out to anyone with whom they do business and anyone who has voluntarily provided their email addresses in the past (newsletter subscribers, loyalty program participants, contest entrants, etc.). Let them know about the issue at hand and invite them to opt into future alerts and calls to action. Meanwhile, gather new contacts through the store’s education efforts in the form of point-of-sale sign ups and social media connections. As campaign events are planned and participation is needed, retailers should consider whether they want to share their contacts with the larger effort. If not, they should be prepared to quickly pass along information to their network, so people can be mobilized to take timely action.
There are two types of media that issue campaigns rely upon: paid media and earned media.
Paid media includes all forms of advertising, including sponsorships of events, billboards, commercials, and ads via print and online sources. In most issue campaigns, these efforts will be centrally coordinated and paid for. They have the benefit of enabling you to control the message, but they can be costly depending on their visibility and reach.
Earned media is coverage of a message, event or activity by third-party sources like reporters, bloggers and the nightly news. News releases and press conferences can generate significant earned media, as can rallies and demonstrations. Generally speaking, earned media costs very little, but there is little opportunity to control or direct it. A retailer’s ability to generate earned media locally can be a very valuable asset for an issue campaign to tap into.
By planning out the various participants’ efforts regarding timing, education, activism and media, a successful issue campaign can help to shape public opinion and, ultimately, legislation. Communication and engagement by all participants are the key, as is a mutual agreement that the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of the campaign. When the time comes, will you be ready to join the team?
Cathy Calliotte is vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington, D.C.–based Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.