Campaigns & Elections

Public Affairs PR: How to Win a Campaign in New York

Cathy Rought & Rendy Desamours

January 10th, 2022

NY Public Affairs

Let’s talk about NY public affairs PR strategy.

Somehow, it is already 2022 and the next legislative session is underway. New York has a new Governor—who has to deliver her first budget while primary candidates wait in the wings.

In the city, we have ushered in almost an entirely new city council slated to be the most diverse and female body in memory, along with a new but experienced mayor. When you factor in the continuing pandemic, the economic challenges it has created, governmental funding cuts, record rents, revenue shortfalls, potential inflation, supply and labor shortages, the city and state both have their work cut out for them.

Navigating this new world and the 2022 legislative sessions will not be for the faint of heart, but there are some key ways that our own Public Affairs team uses to help issues stand out from the rest. 

Be realistic and know what success looks like

As Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” Many companies and nonprofits pursue sweeping legislative fixes that will rarely materialize in the way they expect. Sometimes something unforeseen comes along that completely reshuffles the deck and the order of importance (looking at you COVID). Other times, NY public affairs PR clients may not have fully appreciated the fervor of the opposition to one provision and amendments completely alter the original intent of the legislation beyond recognition. The most successful clients know how to qualify and quantify their goals on both a long-term and incremental scale—helping you not shoot yourself in the foot. 

Have a centralized message

It doesn’t matter how important your issue is to the world if no one understands what you are saying. Policy fights can be very complicated, and when engaging with legislators or press, it needs to be packaged in a compelling way and easily understood by people outside the usual audiences. That’s where an effective public affairs PR strategy comes along.

Every issue campaign needs an overarching narrative at its core. This message will serve as the foundation for your public and internal messaging, ensure repetition and consistency and encapsulate the most important aspects of your issue campaign. 

How much is it going to cost me?

Despite the federal stimulus bills and infrastructure bills, there is a lot less revenue to go around on the state and local level due to the pandemic. 

As Brookings noted, federal agencies now have the enormous responsibility to implement these laws, standing-up new programs and finding safe ways to quickly get the money out the door. States and localities carry even a bigger burden to design and build new assets, hire more workers and even mobilize their own financial resources. In other words, much has to be built and determined before money can flow to its intended recipients.

All of this is to say, there will be very little appetite for policy that requires significant public funds without offsets, measurable economic gains or other value propositions defined. Know exactly how much you are asking for and find a way to qualify or quantify its rate of return to New Yorkers. 

Know your politics

Elected officials, regulators and policymakers are human beings—they have feelings, likes, dislikes, relationships, grudges, career trajectories and, most importantly, personal histories. When it comes to public affairs strategy, knowing who your top targets are is important, but knowing their ecosphere, personality and motivations are equally so.

It’s possible that your issue is not top of mind for lawmakers or the biggest issue of the week or month (in their world.) Make sure you look at the forest and not just at the trees—analyze the whole landscape for potential champions and allies, who can help and who can hurt your public affairs campaign.

Cultivate validators & storytellers

There is something we call the “chicken for dinner” phenomenon. We are surrounded by competing priorities, an abundance of information and only so many hours in the day. The most compelling stories grab our attention, keep us engaged and make emotional connections. They tell us why we should care. Less successful storytelling will allow people’s minds to wander, and instead of absorbing your messaging, your listeners will start wondering if they remembered to take out the chicken for dinner.

Every public affairs PR campaign needs multiple and compelling storytellers—They ARE your campaign. Whether it’s through personal stories, statements, quotes, op-eds, letters, testimony, social media advertisements or events, they will be the avenue in which your audience relates to your campaign. They help you win hearts and minds to persuade elected officials, attract media interest and make your issue relevant. 

Be scrappy and quick to pivot when needed

The dynamics in New York politics are constantly changing. Don’t be afraid to tailor your messaging to ensure you’re prepared to respond to what’s happening in the moment or the current political situation. You never know when you’ll lose a notable ally, face a historic pandemic or deal with sudden widespread political opposition. By monitoring the other issues that policymakers and advocates are consistently debating in the press, you’ll understand the intersections of your issue, be able to newsjack key media moments and learn what is moving policymakers at the moment. 

Consistently engage policymakers and their allies.

No one can keep up with all the legislative movement in Albany or New York City, especially elected officials and their staff. Every campaign should hold lobby days and meet 1:1 with supportive and persuadable lawmakers. There should never be a time where your public affairs PR campaign goes quiet without being visible in the media, meeting with lawmakers or holding events. This constant activity helps keep your issue alive not only in the press but with the elected officials you’re looking to influence. Integrate your government relations and media strategies to maximize impact. 

These are just the foundational steps to a strong advocacy campaign but by no means all-encompassing. Each public affairs PR strategy is unique and will require a specific strategy to reach its goal. It must be said that some of the biggest, recent wins in the state and city took years if not decades to achieve. Never forget, Rome was not built in a day.