Throwing Your Hat Into the Ring

Throwing Your Hat Into the Ring

By Bridget McCrea

At November’s Washington and Oregon REALTOR® Party Symposium, we spoke with two leading political consultants about the value of getting involved with grassroots advocacy campaigns and “speaking up” about industry issues at the local, state, and national level. Our experts were Sara Fagen, a partner with DDC in Washington, D.C., and Doug Sosnik, a consultant with Rework American and a senior advisor with the Markle Foundation.

For Sara Fagen and Doug Sosnik, “getting involved” comes pretty naturally. Having held distinguished positions in some of the nation’s most visible political campaigns and organizations, they have an inside track on the value of getting (and staying) involved with politics, advocacy, and issues that they’re passionate about. Fagen, who served as a senior aide and White House political director to President George W. Bush, says REALTORS® who want to get involved should start by conveying their objectives to elected leaders.

“In a society where people are so busy and there’s so much information flowing, it’s important to have an organized, forward-leaning program that involves many different people,” Fagen says. “We know from research that the most effective way to communicate with a political leader is not through a lobbyist or a TV advertisement, but via direct communication with constituents. The most credible constituents on real estate issues are REALTORS®; that’s why it’s so critical that REALTORS® engage in the political process.”

Doug Sosnik, who has advised U.S. President Bill Clinton, senators, governors, Fortune 100 corporations, foundations, and universities, says REALTORS® also need to understand that they’re directly impacted by public policy. Those that opt out of the process, and who choose not to advocate on behalf of American homeowners, could be allowing politicians to “easily create and enact a series of policies which could negatively impact the real estate industry.”

Over the last 25 years, Sosnik says the National Association of REALTORS® has become “extremely effective” at advocating for the industry and for American homeowners. Even with this powerful force on their side, individual REALTORS® need to step up to the plate and participate. “You can’t have too much REALTOR® engagement,” says Sosnik, “which is another way of saying [NAR’s] job is to get as many REALTORS® as possible involved in the association, engaged in its work, and mobilized for when the time comes to positively impact public policy of elected officials.”

Fagen concurs, noting that REALTORS® are “very effective” political advocates, particularly when it comes to leveraging data and analytics. “NAR has made that investment (in data and analytics tools) and made them available to all state associations,” says Fagen. “The professional staffs both at NAR and the state organizations help foster an environment where people are educated, trained, and given the tools they need to be successful and confident. It’s a part of NAR’s culture and brand.”

Money Isn’t Everything

It’s no secret that millions of dollars are being moved around the American political system right now, in advance of the 2016 general presidential election. And while financial support is clearly a foundational element of any grassroots campaign, it’s not everything. “There’s a flood of money out there, but it has sort of ‘numbed’ the public, which sees all of this money being spent in political advertising,” Sosnik explains. “I think they find most of the advertising to be partisan and unbalanced. So, increasingly, with the shrill and the noise increasing, people are tuning out all these political messages because they don’t believe anybody.”

With that in mind, Sosnik says individual participation in the advocacy process becomes that much more critical. “Members are important because it’s not the money you raise and spend on TV, it’s what your friends, neighbors, community leaders, and co-workers think that matters the most,” Sosnik explains. “That’s where people get their views about how to vote in elections.”

To best leverage this asset, REALTOR® association leaders need to do their part in mobilizing members into action. This is both a challenge and an opportunity, says Sosnik. “The goal is to map, mobilize, and maximize your greatest organizational asset — your members,” says Sosnik, “and get them out into the community to advocate on behalf of the organization and key housing issues.”

Keeping Up with the Pace

In assessing the progress that state and local REALTOR® associations have made on the political front over the years, Fagen says, “some groups are more experienced than others” in this realm. In some cases, she says both communication skills and strategies could use some polishing. “The associations have a lot of manpower and a lot of desire,” says Fagen. “However, some of the their initiatives and campaigns could use ‘next level’ communications and media strategies.” For example, that could mean taking the time to meet with editorial boards or getting members to commit to writing letters, blogs, or social media posts. “In general most organizations could always be doing more of that,” Fagen says.

With the 113th Congress coming to a close, for example, a retail coalition recently leveraged a paid media campaign to garner national and earned media coverage encouraging Congress to pass e-fairness legislation. The campaign included over 30 national and local earned media hits over a 4-week period; more than 23,000 Facebook engagements with a reach of over 1 million people; and a YouTube video that was viewed over 160,000 times over a 4-week period. As a result of these efforts, 30 House Republicans met privately with Speaker John Boehner to discuss the urgent need to pass e-fairness before the lame duck session of Congress adjourned.

Fagen says data and analytics could also be put to more use in the political and advocacy arenas, where effectively targeting audiences, drawing conclusions, and creating action plans are all made easier by technology. “Using a long-term (5- or 10-year) plan,” says Fagen, “State and local associations and their members can think about taking our advocacy to the next generation. That way, when issues come up — particularly if they are issues where REALTORS® are on the defensive — there will be a plan in place that can be executed quickly.”

To REALTORS® who want to get more involved in the political advocacy process, Fagen says adopting a forward-thinking mindset is a good first step. With the rapid pace of change that we’re experiencing technologically, and with the way the public views and consumes politics, we can’t rest on our laurels,” Fagen cautions. “NAR is a good organization and it has built a top-flight program, but there’s almost always room for improvement in all advocacy organizations. If you’re not paying attention to the political trends and adapting to them, you’ll wind up falling behind quickly because the rate of change is so fast.”

[Bridget McCrea BIO]

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