Remote lawmaking changes the game for public affairs pros

With some lawmakers now voting remotely due to COVID-19 measures, even greater attention must be paid to local media outlets.

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The House of Representatives changed the landscape when it amended House rules, allowing virtual hearings and remote voting by its members.

The May 15 move came as lawmakers sought to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 and social distancing efforts that have upended travel and brought normal operations to a standstill. The change itself is historic.

As The New York Times reported:

When the House of Representatives acted on Friday to allow remote voting and virtual hearings, the coronavirus pandemic officially succeeded in doing what Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak of 1793, the Spanish influenza of 1918, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and generations of agitators for institutional change never could: untethering Congress from its mandate to come together physically.

However, it’s not just legislators who will have to adapt. The lobbyists and PR practitioners that work on campaigns in Washington, D.C., must now look farther afield for the levers to drive action on their key issues.

Ron Bonjean, a partner at Rokk Solutions, explains it this way:

Lawmakers have long relied on local news to identify the needs of constituents and communicate their priorities back to their communities. But as our leaders spend even more time in district than ever before, plugging into the local media that elected officials are closely watching is critical to ensure organizations’ voices are part of the conversation.

New tactics

With congressional leaders fulfilling many key duties from home, Bonjean says, local media markets are going to see a rise in influence.

“Organizations eager to make policy impacts will be wise to prioritize breaking into local news coverage by leveraging what is happening in districts, then coupling these stories with targeted social media to impact lawmakers where they are,” he says.

“Reevaluating your public relations strategy and reallocating resources to account for this changing environment will set organizations apart as they seek to advance their policy agenda.”

Local media outlets have long been important for those looking to reach a member of Congress—and Bonjean says this rule still applies, despite the losses that have plagued local newsrooms in recent years.

“Local news has suffered even more during this pandemic,” he admits, “but that doesn’t change its relevance. PR pros looking to have an impact in local news markets need to do their research. They should have an understanding of the reporters they are pitching and what interests them, and they need to come prepared with all of the facts and sources at the ready.”

Good pitching practices matter, regardless of geography.

“Pitching local news should be met with as much thought and care as pitching national media,” Bonjean says.”

Nontraditional resources

Are your only options local TV and newspapers? What are the ways PR pros should think about trying to reach local communities when pursuing a public affairs campaign?

For Bonjean, the answer is to pursue everything at your disposal.

“There are certainly options beyond local TV and newspapers,” he says. “Local radio and podcasts should be considered as well. As people start returning to work and to their daily activities, they will be spending more time in the car. Elected officials are also still on the go during this pandemic and are listening to local radio as they move from place to place.”

And don’t forget digital and social media.

“Geotargeting will be important, but also looking into local community influencers and engaging with them on social media will go a long way to advancing your campaign goals,” says Bonjean. “We should never underestimate the power of going local.”

Costly errors

Engaging local news is a tricky business in 2020, and recent layoffs and shuttered outlets aren’t helping to get your news in front of local audiences.

With many local outlets hanging on by a thread, PR pros must be extra mindful about how they approach those understaffed organizations.

“Local news has been impacted by the global pandemic, and they are running on lean staff,” says Bonjean. “This means that they need PR’s help as much as we need their reporting. It is more important than ever to be thoughtful in your pitches, have resources at the ready for reporters and be mindful of their time.

“While these all sound like PR best practices, it is essential that during this time of limited resources that we do our very best work.”

He adds one bit of essential advice: “If your storyline isn’t related to COVID-19, do not try to force a connection. Ambulance chasing is a surefire way to get blacklisted by reporters.”

However, there are big opportunities for judicious practitioners.

“As states and communities begin to open again, local news media is just beginning to tell the stories of small businesses concerned about liability guidelines to protect themselves as employees and consumers express anxiety about safely re-engaging in their normal daily activities,” Bonjean says. “These are the kinds of pieces that make policy issues relatable to everyday Americans, giving them the opening to provide feedback to their legislators.”

The long-term look

COVID-19 won’t be with us forever, but the crisis repercussions will persist for some time, and many parts of the industry may be permanently changed when things enter what’s been dubbed “the next normal.” Some will involve a reversion to old ways.

“The importance of local media isn’t new,” Bonjean says. “Last year, Pew Research Center found that 73% of Americans follow local news at least somewhat closely. However, amid the COVID-19 crisis, that number has certainly gone up as stay-at-home orders, business and school closures, and an overall increased need for localized information has skyrocketed.”

The crisis has also revealed the local nature of our society, as states have implemented varied measures in response to the pandemic.

“National news only offers the surface layer of what is going on,” says Bonjean. “Local news has the details people need. … This pandemic has changed the mindset of Americans, and it has changed the way we live and interact with one another. These impacts will last a lifetime.”

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