Whether it’s Trump in the US or lobby groups in Australia looking to secure funding during COVID-19, you need to understand how the modern media works to get what you want.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past four years you’ll have heard the allegations against US President, Donald Trump, asserting that he’s been in cahoots with the Russians to undermine his political opponents and win elections.

Central to Trump’s success has been a mastery of media campaigning: traditional, social, and digital. This type of campaigning is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Traditionally, political campaigns were broad. The same messages went out to everyone through a small band of media outlets, and the policies floated on the hustings, and their analysis, were accessible to all. The internet changed all that.

Prior to the digital age ‘the media’ referred to what’s known as legacy or traditional media: radio, TV and print. The media pool then was a lot more compact. The news people consumed was broadly shared. A couple of major papers, a handful of TV stations and radio talkback was where everyone got their news from.

Today when we say media, that still includes traditional media but has expanded to include social and digital media. The advent of the internet, and social media in particular, means commentary on politics has been democratised and expanded to millions of people. The number of media commentators and outlets is now legion.

And with this 24/7 news cycle and ‘now’ deadlines, fact checking has become much harder as media outlets compete to be the first to break news in a saturated media marketplace. This media saturation also means to cut through requires some very strong takes, and in politics, there has been a Balkanisation of messaging: different messages for different people.

This capacity to have very targeted campaign messages is something being used in the world of lobbying and not just for the rich and powerful. Savvy not-for-profits are using all the media tools available to them to win Facebook and influence people: to influence and shape government policy settings and win funding.

Old fashioned lobbying

Once upon a time political lobbying was very much about cultivating relationships with politicians through social events like dinners, financial contributions to political parties, meeting with Chiefs of Staff and Ministers, and making policy submissions.

For large and influential peak bodies, like the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, or the Minerals Council of Australia, that influence is strong and the relationships well established.

But what if you are an organisation or peak-body of a more modest size and have some funding or policy requests of your own to put to the government or opposition?

The good news is the digital age has opened up the field for savvy campaigners to lobby effectively for change.

How digital lobbying works

What the fracturing of the media landscape, the proliferation of social media platforms, and data capture has allowed organisations and peak bodies to do is to develop tailored messaging to very specific cohorts with calls-to-action.

What we’re interested in from a lobbying point of view is how organisations can create highly targeted and sophisticated media campaigns whose aim is winning public sympathy for your campaign, and how they supplements your broader lobbying efforts.

In broad brushstrokes, traditional media is used to raise issues and calls-to-action in the public sphere and to link them to the public interest. Social media is there to further and continue the debate raised in the traditional media and to start to cohere a tribe of supporters. Digital media is there to capture data and to start to target specific demographic cohorts and marginal seats.  

Anatomy of a lobbying campaign: 10 steps

The first thing to do if you’re an organisation seeking to influence policy or attract funding is to articulate the outcomes you seek and how they intersect with the public interest. Make a list of friends and allies who might support that call and ask them if they would support the campaign in terms of material support, financial support, or media support.

The second action is to open social media accounts dedicated to this campaign aim or using already existing accounts where congruent and relevant. You will want to start building a following now if your accounts are new. Targeted blog content and boosted ads should be used to build a reasonable following that will supplement the traditional media campaign when it gets underway. Create a social media content plan for the campaign that covers all angles and includes allies and media coverage.

The third port of call is to create a story plan that will be worked up into media releases and a media pitch list and plan.

The fourth action is to reach out to the Diary Manager or Chief of Staff for the Minister, local member, or politician you want to discuss your policy/funding aim with and organise a meeting, making note of the public interest element of the meeting. Also be sure they understand this is part of a broader campaign. Note you will need to go through a registered political lobbyist to do this. Have a list of politicians you want to work through.

Step five is to get those media releases written. Include key messages (two at most), be sure to find allies and case studies to support your story, and have a call-to-action.

Step six is to pitch those stories to the media and to prep your spokesperson for any media opportunities that come out of it.

Step seven is to supplement your traditional media coverage with a social media strategy. Share the story you have in the traditional media and call for your followers to take some action. Use relevant handles of stakeholders, especially politicians, and relevant hashtags.

Step eight is to check in with your political contacts. Ask if they saw the story in the media about your issue and ask if you could have another meeting to discuss. Depending on the reaction you might move onto another politician. If you are some way from a resolution, you may proceed to step nine.

Step nine is to produce targeted content around your call-to-action which will be sent through social media to people within a specific geographical area, like a marginal seat, or perhaps to a certain cohort with a specific interest. This is part of continuing to build your tribe, putting pressure on politicians, and letting them know you’re organised. Remember: politics is all about managing discontent and putting out brushfires.

Step ten is really just rolling these traditional media, social media, and digital tactics through while taking the temperature of the politicians you’re seeking to influence. Once again, using a lobbyist that is across the messaging is invaluable. It helps avoid any direct animus with the organisation and sets up a professional relationship.