Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Advocacy Made Easy: Zoom Lobby Meetings

A Shot@Life virtual lobby meeting with Kansas Congresswoman
Sharice Davids
(pictured lower center)

In 2021, we've finally moved past the point where every virtual meeting has to start with a tedious and obligatory " is hard, am-I-right?" statement by the host. It took some congressional offices a few months into the pandemic to admit that they just had to figure out a way to meet virtually with constituents. (Hats off to former Congressman Lacy Clay who figured out how to do this years before COVID-19!) It took even longer for some activists to get comfortable with it. But now, we've reached a point where Zoom is standard technology.

And yet...even though you may know how to turn your mic on before speaking, a lobby meeting is a little different than a Zoom with friends. Here are a few of the tips I've learned from lobbying with multiple organizations in 2020. Every group taught me a new idea as everyone learned together. I've compiled some of my favorites here:

Before the Meeting

Cindy's hands typing on a laptop amidst the
clutter of lobby materials, an extra monitor,
 and a tea tray.
  • Email the aide all the "leave behind" documents the day before. Since you can no longer hand over a folder including copies of letters to sign or cool infographics to discuss, make sure you send everything ahead of time via email, so they can follow along as you explain your requests. Some aides only open up the file when prompted during the meeting, but I am pleasantly surprised how many will read them in advance to prepare.
  • Make a phone group text with your lobby team. It's useful if something unexpected happens (aide postpones meeting or someone gets stuck in the waiting room), so you can reach each other immediately.
  • Decide on an order to introduce yourselves at the beginning. It avoids awkward "Who talks next? Do I go?" pauses during what would normally be quick introductions around a physical table.
  • Require Zoom host to admit participants manually. That way the aide won't arrive while you're joking around with your team or threatening/cajoling/bribing your children to stay quiet and off camera.
  • Adjust your screen height for best "eye contact." We all know we're looking into cameras and not into each other's eyes, but it's irritating to talk to someone constantly looking in a different direction. Make sure your camera captures your entire face and that your line of sight is roughly where your camera is located. You might need to scoot back from your computer or put your laptop up on some books to make sure you don't treat people to an uncomfortable view up your nose. 

At the Meeting

  • Arrive in the Zoom 5-10 minutes early. It will help you appear unhurried when you admit the aide from the waiting room.
  • Speak to the person, don't just read text. You are relationship-building! When someone obviously reads to me, it gives me that "This meeting could have been an email" feeling. A benefit of Zoom is that you CAN have your talking points in front of you, but practice them a few times. A familiarity with your material will help you sound more natural and convincing. 
  • Pause for questions. Too many advocates treat Zoom meetings like class presentations. Your goal should be to have a productive back-and-forth conversation building your relationship. Give them conversation cues, like "Do you have any questions about what Amanda just said?" or "Do you you think your boss would support a funding increase?" or "With your insight, what do you think the mood is on the Hill about this bill?"
  • Ask permission to take a picture at the end. Give everyone a countdown to the picture click. Random pics of zoom meetings look highly unflattering!
A general tip to remember is that members of Congress and their aides are going through a lot right now, too. In our prep meetings for the Shot@Life Advocacy Day in February, a trainer advised us to remember that everyone up there is "drinking from a fire hose," which is an apt metaphor. They get Zoom fatigue with back-to-back meetings. Some of them have kids at home taking virtual classes and experiencing pandemic stressors no one ever had to go through before. Some of them were afraid for their lives working on Capitol Hill during the January 6 insurrectionist riots in D.CSome aides at home are lonely and isolated, working in apartments by themselves. 

A CARE virutal lobby meeting with participants in 
St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C.
In my CARE lobby meeting yesterday, I complimented an aide on the lovely sunbeam coming into her workspace. I asked if she was in the office or at home because I couldn't tell. She was at home. She gave us a little resigned smile and said it was a nice sunbeam, but this is the time of day just before it would blast her in the face and blind her if she doesn't move soon. She mused that she might move up to the roof because she might feel better with some fresh air and sunshine. Her response was so human and relatable. I wanted to reach through the screen and hold her hand for a moment. 

As you go about your lobbying business, I encourage everyone to remember that the people on your Zoom meetings are all going through challenges that don't show up on the screen. I always think strength and persistence are important for activists, but don't forget that grace and patience are always excellent traits that can help you make a human connection during a virtual meeting.