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Talking About Advocacy in Members’ Language

January 1, 2010

We know REALTOR® associations are communicating their advocacy efforts, because members consistently say legislative and regulatory updates are an important part of the information they
receive. But communicating in ways that unite and motivate action often remains a challenge.

Discussing advocacy should be simple, jargon-free, and personal—the hallmarks of any effective communication plan. Easier said than done? Here’s how communications pros overcome the challenges of simple but effective communication when it comes to politics.

Know your audience

Don’t assume your issues are too complex for simple, concise messages. Government affairs directors and volunteer REALTOR® leaders understand the nuances, history, and inside details of legislation. On the other hand, not all members have the same level of understanding when it comes to advocacy. Getting, and maintaining, their interest can be a challenge.

To grab members’ attention, Carla Slabotsky, vice president of government affairs at the Oklahoma Association of REALTORS®, recommends targeting communications for the newest members, “the ones who are unaware of legislative issues and who may not even have a fundamental understanding of how government works.”

Engaging members who might otherwise be apathetic to political issues requires communicating with them in a way they are familiar with. This often requires providing entertaining yet authoritative explanations of political issues. Remember, the Today show will always attract more viewers than Meet the Press, even when they’re talking about the same issue.

Bottom-lining issue advocacy

Because many members don’t understand (or even care about) politics, every call to action or political communication should emphasize why this issue—and advocacy in general—is pivotal to their business success. Focusing on business success rather than a particular issue gets to the heart of what every member cares about: the bottom line. After all, it’s easier to motivate people around something they are already passionate about than it is to convince them to take up arms for a new cause.

With that in mind, tailor your message when promoting advocacy issues. For instance, selling the green movement as good for the planet with advocacy posters of trees and birds is far less effective than illustrating the link between green features and increased property values. Likewise, although everyone likes a tax deduction, the campaign to preserve the mortgage interest deduction is somewhat vague unless you put real dollar figures to it. For example, middle-income households earn an average annual $571 deduction with the tax break and higher earners see an average of $1,862 a year off their tax bills.

The national association does a good job of tying complex issues—such as estate tax reform and the Clean Water Act—to business’s bottom line in their issue briefs,* which include a concise answer to the question: “I am a real estate professional. What does this mean for my business?” Ultimately, for any advocacy question you can pose, members are likely thinking, “Yes, but what does this mean for me?”

The power of political persuasion

Political issue arguments that are too detailed and nuanced are simply not persuasive to most members. “Motivating messages need to hit an emotional chord,” writes Kristen Wolf of Fenton Communications in a compelling white paper on nonprofit advocacy communications, titled “Now Hear This, The 9 Laws of Successful Advocacy Communications.*” “People are busy. They resist change. To get their attention and support for change, you have to connect with people by plugging into their belief system, not trying to rewire it.”

Through trial and error, Luke Bell, vice president of governmental affairs at the Kansas Association of REALTORS®, says he’s learned to always tie the importance of an issue to members’ ability to make a living in real estate. He makes the connection in the first two sentences of any communication. For example, when writing about a recent effort to defeat a mortgage registration tax, Bell knew better than to begin the article with the phrase “mortgage registration tax,” which would have immediately required a lengthy explanation of the background of the legislation. Instead, he referred to it as an increase in home buyers’ closing costs. And instead of saying “the legislature defeated the bill,” he wrote, “lawmakers today protected the housing market.”

Toe no party line

Trust—it’s a significant advantage your association has over politicians and interest groups in shaping the political views of members. Although other partisan groups work hard to prove their credibility, REALTOR® associations that are party-neutral, transparent, and singularly focused on what’s best for members’ businesses enjoy an established level of trustworthiness. Capitalizing on this trust means avoiding common campaign tactics of obscuring, attacking, or—worst of all—lying.
“Because of the size of our membership, I am sensitive not to attack the issue,” says Brian Bernardoni, senior director of governmental affairs and public policy at the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “Our membership is diverse and some may take the opposite stance, but I always make it clear that the rationale for why we support or oppose something is based on their bottom line,” he explains.

The communication experts suggest you keep one more thing in mind: Most members will quickly forget past advocacy successes, if they ever knew about them at all. Remember to look for ways to remind members of the difference your association’s advocacy has made—and can make—in their lives and in their businesses.

Melynn Sight is president of nSight Marketing. Contact her at 913-261-9100 or
melynn@nsightmarketing.com.