Issue Advocacy: What it Is and Isn’t

by Gerry Gunster // May 05, 2014 Engagement

What is “Issue Advocacy?” Those of us who have built our careers in the profession are asked this question constantly. We’ve all been at that family event, dinner party or happy hour when the standard question about what one does for a living kicks off the banter. Most answers need no explanation.

“I’m a doctor.”

“I’m a realtor.”

“I’m a teacher.”

But my answer—“I’m in issue advocacy”—is almost always met with either blank stares or follow-up speculation.

“Oh, you’re a lobbyist!”

“Oh, you’re in advertising!”

“Oh! Wait, you’re in what?”

More concerning still, many opinion leaders and decision makers in Washington, London, and Brussels—the very people working in the arena of public affairs and politics—oftentimes don’t really know what “issue advocacy” means.

So here goes…

Issue Advocacy (n): comprehensive communications campaign strategy and tactics that advocate for, against or to neutralize a policy issue that is designed to impact a business, association or individual
With a handy definition like that, I must be the life of any party. Am I right?

What might be easier, more interesting—and perhaps infinitely more helpful—would be to outline what “issue advocacy” isn’t.

Issue advocacy isn’t lobbying.

While issue advocacy is a complement to all successful lobbying efforts, issue advocacy is not a job best performed by lobbyists. That’s because unlike lobbying, issue advocacy is a process that exists to attract public attention (albeit the right kind of public attention).

Decades ago, a lobbyist didn’t need issue advocacy. But in today’s world of 24-hour news cycles and social and digital media, backdoor deal making is best left to the fantasy world of House of Cards.

Issue advocacy isn’t marketing or corporate advertising.

A fairly common and costly mistake made by many corporate government relations teams is that they conflate marketing with issue advocacy. The fact is issue advocacy is a completely different animal with vastly different audiences, messages, and approaches.

Instead of selling a tangible product as you do in marketing, issue advocacy is about convincing people to engage with and share an idea.

But, since you cannot see, feel, or taste an idea, you have to get creative: You have to give your idea its own identity or brand so you have something to sell, and then rise above the message clutter to define a public debate on your own terms. Then you have to make it easy to understand so you can inspire target audiences to counter the critics and take action on behalf of your idea.

Issue advocacy isn’t to be overlooked.

When performed correctly, an effective issue advocacy campaign can break down barriers to doing business and promote change, adding incalculable amounts to a business’s bottom line.

City, state, and federal capitols are littered with laws that were enacted because some corporate public affairs team underestimated the value of a well-researched issue advocacy strategy.

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Does this mean everyone needs to run out and hire an issue advocacy consultant or face certain failure? Absolutely not. Internal teams can become well-oiled issue advocacy machines.

But whether investing internally or externally, issue advocacy is an area that no industry or corporation can afford to ignore.

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