To tell Student’s Stories the Sector will Need to Invest in Grassroots Digital Advocacy
Written from a presentation given at the CECU CEO Summit by Craig Pattee, Agenda Global
Craig Pattee, an independent senior advisor for Agenda Global, has been working with CECU to revolutionize the grassroots movement to the digital age by using students’ stories of success to build support in Congress.
The role of digital data and social tools is changing how people of all generations see the world, especially during COVID-19, when everything had to become virtual and therefore digital.
It has become very important to members of Congress, because digital and social media is how constituents communicate.
“Members of Congress have always cared about grassroots. That’s their job. They represent constituencies. Now they’re representing those constituencies by following what’s happening online. Our job is to steer that and amplify certain voices,” Pattee explained. The role of these digital platforms is here to stay, just as the way we order shoes, just as it’s changed the way you bank. That is fundamentally evolving the way we lobby.”
Expertise in policy, relationships, and knowledge of how the system works are still key, but this new way of grassroots digital advocacy is a way to help lobbyists be more effective.
“My job is to arm [the lobbyists] with constituents’ stories. The data is on your side. You’ve got the results. You’ve got the graduates. We just have to tell that story again, again, again, and again and put very human faces on it,” Pattee said. “That’s all I’m doing is arming your lobbying team with very real stories to highlight the success that the schools are turning out every day.”
Pattee explained how grassroots has changed. When he worked for President George H.W. Bush as the Deputy Secretary of Education under Lamar Alexander and David Kearns, part of his job was engaging grassroots to get behind the president’s education initiative. At that time, grassroots was measured by the pound, in terms of bags of mail. After that it was push calls, then website clicks, then blogs and Facebook and Twitter.
“So today when we talk about grassroots engagement, it’s digital and social,” Pattee explained. He discussed why digital advocacy matters, particularly in our world and in the political world.
Pattee continued to explain that many people have different understandings of what digital and social advocacy exactly is, as it continues to evolve at a fast rate.
“It’s this confluence of three things that go together. It is the mobility that your phone gives you, [with] access to the entire world’s information at your fingertips. The social platforms do too. It curates the information that we get,” Pattee explained.
Pattee further explained how the tools used in advocacy have their originations in the military and Intel world, as well as the marketing world.
“The military and the Intel world use a lot of different vendors to track bad people, to track things that are happening online. It’s perfectly legal and public information where your phone has been for the past week, minute by minute. Those are developed for the Intel community,” Pattee described. “The marketing community starts to learn how to use those techniques.”
Politics is “quite far behind and the world of advocacy is even further behind that,” said Pattee.
“The reason Facebook is free is because they then sell and leverage the 98 personal data points on every Facebook user to advertisers. I think we all know and presume that to be the case,” Pattee said. “When we talk about digital, it’s that mixture of leveraging data that is publicly accessible, along with the digital tools to aggregate that data and then to reach out to you through social platforms. When you Google something, ads pop up on Google. If you’re a golfer, it’s an ad related to golf. Google knows that because they’re able to aggregate that data over a long period of time. That’s why Google is free. But it’s not free because the tradeoff is that data.”
Americans react strangely about data. They don’t seem to care too much up to a point, until the government becomes involved. “In our daily lives if you’ve got a grocery store club card, the reason they give you 5%-10% off your groceries is because that’s the value of your data that day,” said Pattee.
“It doesn’t bother us that Google is free, but it might start to bother us when we think about how all that data gets harvested. When government touches that data, we freak out,” Pattee said.
The important point is to be able to tell the students’ stories, to get that message across to garner support for the private sector. Analyzing and using the data on platforms is one way to do this.
“We have to tell our story. Your story and your content come from your students and your graduates. It’s really compelling,” Pattee pointed out.
“Your marketing people know this, because that’s why they’re using these stories to sell your schools. So what we’re talking about doing is how do we use these same tools that you use in your marketing departments, that Safeway uses to sell more Cheerios, how do we use these same tools to convince people we’re right when it comes to public policy.”
This does not replace lobbying, but rather gives lobbyists another avenue to work with.
“This whole initiative that we’re talking about is pulling that together. It goes together with your own media, your website, email traffic and things like that, along with any paid media that you do and your earned media. That’s the PR that we get together,” Pattee said.
Digital advocacy has been evolving quickly over the past few years. He talked about how the 2008 Obama campaign was a landmark in terms of using digital and social media, really harnessing the power of Facebook, and how the Trump presidency has leveraged Twitter. Then how the 2018 Congressional campaign began utilizing YouTube to get their message out.
“What is our go-to search engine of choice? It’s Google 100% of the time, or at least 90% of the time. For a millennial and Gen Z, the go-to search engine of choice 75% of the time is YouTube, not Google,” Pattee pointed out. “That’s where they’re going for information on public policy issues as well. The 2018 cycle really drove that in.”
The opposition are using these digital tools very effectively against the sector. “Whatever their rationale may be, they’re using these tools very, very effectively against us. I’m guessing you all see that,” said Pattee. “I know for a fact that Congressional staffers see it.”
“Our point and agenda … we have to bottle our story. We’ve got incredible stories. We have to bottle it. We then build a movement behind it and we package it and distribute it to target audiences across digital and social channels so that you and the lobbyists can fall back on that,” Pattee said.
Back in the spring and summer of 2020 Pattee and CECU began a pilot project when they realized the old way of grassroots was not successful. They chose three Republican U.S. Senators to target, Portman, Lankford, and Cassidy. These Senators had supported CECU in the past, but were waffling a bit in the present.
“Your lobbying team and in-house consultants had gotten a lot of feedback from their staff,” Pattee said, they were getting tired of defending the sector and needed some backup. “We decided to focus in on these three. We were simply going to focus on leveraging Veterans for Career Education (VCE). You’ve got a great organization with veterans and we know those three senators care about veterans. So our whole goal was to partner with VCE and tell veteran stories.”
This was done in the middle of COVID-19, making it particularly challenging. The student videos were filmed with an iPhone and sent in. Then, the videos were mashed up with bylines and the stats.
“That combined with a whole bunch of social media content, we know for a fact that those two videos flipped two of our three targets. They pledged to come back to the table with CECU and work with us on compromised language on 90/10,” Pattee said. “When you look at it overall, we engaged over 270,000 people in those three states. That resulted in 5,000 comments, meaning Facebook comments or forwarding a Tweet, etc. Most importantly, it resulted in 400 people contacting those three Senators. We have to get people to take action on behalf of us and that action is weighing in with their member of Congress. We got 400 of them to do it. Believe me, those Congressional staff and those Senators pay attention to that.”
In September, Pattee explained that phase 2 began, since they received such good results from phase 1 with the three Senators. The focus group of phase 2 is 15 target Democrats that the CECU team feels are potentially supportive of CECU schools.
“We’re switching the messaging. Democrats care just as much about veterans as Republicans do, but we wanted to broaden out the messaging to include more stories of diversity. We wanted to identify specifically trans students, students and graduates of color, that have gone into successful small business and are making a difference, and people that have a hard time fitting a more traditional school environment in their life,” Pattee explained. “Many of you have referred students from your schools for this little mini-campaign. The stories are moving, sometimes they borderline bring you to tears, the stories are so compelling. What we’re doing now is we do a Zoom call with your graduates. It only takes like 10 or 15 minutes. I ask them questions and I can always get what we need for the video on these. The goal is exactly as we did before, to dial that in on these 15 target Democrats.”
A few op-eds have been done, once published they can be used across social media channels. “All I need is one place to run an op-ed from a student and then we use that across social media channels. We’re able to recycle that op-ed more and more,” Pattee said. However, more content is needed.
“I need you and your schools to hook us up with students and graduates that would be willing to tell their story. I need those stories from you. COVID warriors in the medical field. Truck drivers. Precision manufacturing. Any kind of mechanical skills. It doesn’t matter. We need content, and we need it now, because come January we’re going to be rolling out a much more aggressive blitz to these members of Congress,” Pattee said.
Besides student stories, employers can also help by sending stories in to help support the initiative.
“It’s finding employers, and getting them to talk about how we need qualified people for the jobs … and I get mine from ECPI, or whatever it might be,” Pattee said. “Identifying employers, telling those stories, and matching it up with a graduate story is not hard. It just takes leg work. We don’t need a ton of them. We swayed two Republican senators with a handful of videos.”
The long-term goal is to get more content and find new ways to engage the audiences.
“It’s not just engaging the graduates; it’s engaging the families of graduates, parents of graduates, employers of graduates. Those are all additional audiences that we can target and engage,” Pattee said. “We should think about social media listening, which is a relatively cheap tool that monitors online traffic in what people are saying about for-profit schools. We need to engage online influencers. Obviously there’s a whole world around veterans. There’s a whole world of bloggers and social media influencers that single moms pay attention to. We can identify who those social media influences are and engage them.”
Pattee concluded by explaining how lobbying is rapidly evolving, and this digital grassroots effort is a tool for the lobbying team to use to help sway Congress members.
“At the end of the day, these members of Congress are doing their job and representing their Congressional district. Therein they want to know, how does this impact my district? Just tell me how it impacts people in my district, and right now for Democrats, especially people of color, especially people that have been negatively impacted by the COVID pandemic and need a new job,” Pattee said. “That’s what it comes down to is content, content, content, and storytelling.”