By Megan R. Wilson | April 1, 2021 5:01AM ET
The National Association of Realtors, one of the most powerful industry groups in Washington, was among the many groups that switched to Zoom style advocacy when the coronavirus made in-person lobbying untenable.
With signs the pandemic may be ebbing, the group is now reassessing how to handle traditional fly-in events when members descend on Capitol Hill to buttonhole members. The Realtors’ fly-in this May will be virtual, but with a “light at the end of the tunnel” of the pandemic, the group “will soon start looking at what a hybrid format will look like,” said Patrick Newton, the director of advocacy and PR communications for the group.
Advocacy groups say the pandemic has forced them to innovate and reevaluate the best way to get their message across to congressional offices. Officials with a half-dozen trade associations who spoke with Bloomberg Government said most are already planning to have their legislative advocacy fly-ins be in-person for next year. However, the move by organizations over the last year to video platforms for their lobbying has opened up possibilities for them to expand their influence activities.
“One of the things I think all of us have learned in the Covid environment is that things that we never considered before actually work for us,” said Susan Robertson, who helms the American Society of Association Executives. She says that a “blended model” of in-person and virtual meetings will be prominent, particularly for associations whose revenues were hit hard by the pandemic.
Fly-ins are a time to discuss policy and forge relationships, which can sometimes be difficult through a screen. But while “Zoom fatigue” has set in and both lobbyists and lawmakers are eager to start seeing people in person, advocates say that it can be more efficient to hop on a video call.
Operating virtually is cheaper and more convenient because it doesn’t require people to take time off work to coordinate travel plans and meetings. Lobbyists also say it makes members of Congress and staff more accessible, both figuratively and literally.
National Association of Music Merchants member Robin Walente speaks with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) during “NAMM, VH1 And CMA Day Of Music Education Advocacy Capitol Hill” in 2017. Such in-person advocacy meetings have been replaced by Zoom lobbying during the pandemic.
When the Realtors had to pivot to a virtual format for last year’s slate of meetings with Capitol Hill when the coronavirus hit, for example, it allowed them to triple the number of its members that were involved to 30,000 people.
“It’s the new frontier,” said Newton. “Our view is why not have the best of both going forward?”
For patient groups and disability advocates, traveling to Washington and navigating the halls of Congress can pose a hardship for those who have disabilities or use wheelchairs, said Cristina Antelo, founder of Ferox Strategies, who works with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“The Capitol is 200 years old, it’s not made for all of that,” she said. “To be able to have a virtual option becomes so accessible for them.”
In a survey of 245 government affairs executives last year by the Public Affairs Council, more than 70% reported that it will be more difficult to meet with members of Congress in person, even after the pandemic. Almost 40% of those surveyed said that Zoom and other video conferencing platforms will be sticking around post-Covid.
“It definitely changed the game,” said lobbyist David Castagnetti, co-founder of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. “We’ve seen many clients do much better in the Zoom circles of meetings than individual come-into-town-and-go-to-the-Hill meetings.”
The virtual advocacy is “more or less here to stay,” said Matthew Haller, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs for the International Franchise Association.
“It’s always been a huge expense and lift to get small business people to take a couple days out of their business to come to DC for our fly-in,” he said. Video communications opened up the ability for franchisees to take members of Congress behind the scenes of their operations without the lawmaker having to make a trip.
“You could literally just take a member of Congress through your business and talk about the issues that you’re having and introduce them to your employees or show them a facility on your phone,” Haller said.
The National Beer Wholesalers Association’s annual fly-in, which usually corresponds with a massive party at the Library of Congress that allows members and hundreds of beer distributors to mingle, was scrapped last year as it put all its resources into ensuring that the industry could be designated as essential to keep supply moving. This year, their fly-in is going virtual.
Craig Purser, who leads the group, noted how difficult it had been for an industry model so tied to hospitality not to have “the face-to-face, handshakes, bear hugs” that are part of the “relationship game,” but that 2020 has brought lessons to take into the future.
“There is the whole notion of bringing people together being one of the core things that we do as advocates, and so that convening just may take on some additional shapes,” said Purser, adding that there may be a digital advocacy component in future years. “While I’m a believer and a lover of the old school, I’m also a believer and a lover that we’ve got to evolve.”
This article originally appeared in Bloomberg