The Makings of a Meaningful Policy Campaign

A little less than five years ago, I sat with some of my liberty movement peers in a conference room. We were there to discuss strategies that might overcome the obstacles standing between our organizations and the policy reforms they desired. As we talked, we discovered that while we excelled at delivering a polished message, we largely failed to articulate why the results of our proposed solutions would be tangible and meaningful for people in our state. The discussion challenged each of us to think creatively about how we could use our institution’s capacities to make sure our message would be emotionally compelling for our neighbors and policymakers alike.

At the time, I was overseeing the policy work of a small but highly effective state think tank, after spending nearly ten years driving communications strategies for some national free-market institutions. After that meeting with my peers, I was more firmly convinced than ever that my experiences gave me the opportunity to help my organization and its allies reimagine what a successful policy campaign would look like. My work in both policy and communications — two very different worlds, it had seemed at times — gave me something valuable: the ability to bring them together in ways that create the momentum necessary for the changes we seek. Legislative, marketing and outreach efforts, each in a vacuum, may produce independent results, but together, they produce more substantial changes.

To make an impact, our team at the Mackinac Center now seeks to ensure that every priority we undertake includes each of the following:

  1. A clear and achievable goal. It’s not enough to have quality research (though that’s critically important). We must be able to articulate, map, and achieve our long-term goals by winning incremental victories. To do this, we must have a strong state government affairs strategy.
  2. A story of at least one person who is or will be personally affected. One person’s story can change the hearts and minds of many — and if we aren’t able to find one person capable of attesting to the personal impact of the work we’re doing, why are we taking on the issue to begin with? Finding people with powerful stories to tell can transform a policy campaign, but it requires a constant emphasis on connecting with individuals in communities.
  3. Aligned organizations from diverse perspectives willing to join the cause. If our goal is to fundamentally shift widely held principles and perspectives, we can’t simply preach to the choir. To reach new constituencies, we must have the right messenger, who may not always be us. So we must build strong partnerships with institutions that will inspire others in their own network to act.

Each of these capacities, acting in concert, moves us from talking at people to talking with people. We will penetrate inertia, show that we will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and maintain a focus on empowering people first rather than simply reforming government. If we’re successful at the former, it will naturally lead to the latter.