Fly-ins have undergone some major changes in recent years, moving from traditional in-person events to all-virtual during the pandemic, to a hybrid of both the last two years. Now, it’s time to break the mold, look to the future, and explore innovative ways to conduct an advocacy day on the Hill or at the state capitol.
Over the last two years, advocacy has seen a boom, with more people inclined to participate and get involved. That increase in interest is expected to continue in 2023, advocacy experts predict. “The trend has been more people realizing the value of a fly-in,” says Kirstie Tucker, founder of DC Fly-Ins. “More organizations are realizing it does make a difference when you bring people in to tell their story.”
There’s an art to nailing a fly-in that will be remembered and talked about — for the right reasons — for years to come by supporters, members, clients, and lawmakers in attendance. Follow these best practices to ensure your fly-in is a smashing hit.
1. Start Early
“Planning a fly-in lobby day is an exercise in project planning and management,” says Seth Chase, government affairs director at the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. “It takes six months to put everything together for our lobby day and it involves staff from other departments at my association.”
The best way to have a well-organized fly-in, whether virtual, in person, or hybrid, is to start early so you have time to prepare and get buy-in from the rest of your organization. A fly-in should be an interdepartmental project that increases enthusiasm for the government affairs department.
Communicate effectively with everyone in your organization about your plans early on — you may be surprised at the ideas people bring to the table or the ways they are excited to pitch in. Planning early allows your colleagues to get involved and pool their resources as they work together for the success of the entire organization. “Good events don’t just happen, they are planned,” says Lindsey Miller, senior manager of grassroots advocacy at the National Restaurant Association.
Connect with the media early on to start generating awareness and coverage. Not all news outlets will cover this type of event, but depending on the issues, your event could get some traction. However, don’t wait until the last minute to reach out to media contacts about your issues and event — get it on their radar early.
When it comes to legislator outreach, a rule of thumb is to make sure to make requests for a meeting at least two weeks in advance.
2. Work Backwards
Not sure where to start? Think about the ultimate goal you want to achieve or the outcomes you want to see from your fly-in. “Think about the needs of your advocates and what congressional staffers want to get out of meeting with your members,” Chase says.
Have your goals clearly in mind so that when you get bogged down with minor organizational issues that will certainly arise, you can refocus on what you really want to achieve. It can be helpful to get a vision of your ideal fly-in by seeing what other organizations have done successfully. Talk to similar organizations about what they wish they had done differently and what worked well, or attend other fly-ins, and don’t be afraid to “steal” their ideas as you piece together your strategy.
Determine how you will measure whether your event was successful so you can work toward that goal. You might want staffers or members to make commitments that align with your organization’s stance on an issue or policy, a certain number of registrants and attendees, or a certain volume of participation in a digital campaign. Have concrete goals, and communicate them with your organization and advocates so everyone is aware of your end game.
Once your goals are clear, create a timeline and a task list based on the outcomes you hope to see as a result of your fly-in. Then, assign tasks to people in your organization and start planning the issues you’ll focus on.
3. Brief Your Advocates Thoroughly
Your advocates are your biggest asset in any fly-in. “Having a constituent in a meeting is pretty much a guarantee that you will get a meeting,” Tucker says. Real stories make an impact. As important as it is to organize yourself and your team members, equipping your advocates will go a long way in pulling off a successful fly-in.
Remember just because meetings with legislators are somewhat the norm for you, some of your attendees maybe haven’t had a similar experience before. Chase prepares his advocates the day before the event. They learn about each bill for 45 minutes and everyone gets a fact sheet, the text of the bill, and their talking points. Chase also equips supporters with a follow-up letter to send after the meeting, so “just in case they don’t get the message quite right, it’s right there in the letter,” he says.
Consider creating fact sheets for advocates with talking points they can quickly refer to during conversations, and hold training sessions with those who may be interested but need to learn more about the most important points to emphasize so they don’t get off-topic.
“We turned our typical in-person training into video-on-demand trainings so we can help people feel more comfortable and prepared to have conversations with a legislator,” says Jessica Cooper, grassroots director at the National Federation of Independent Business, at a FiscalNote event. Focusing on training advocates on what it means to be involved and on pressing issues is an advantage of hosting fly-ins, and even more leveraging the on-demand format that can more easily adjust to your supporters’ schedules.
You can also host a webinar on lobbying and interacting with policymakers online, suggests Lauren DePutter, director of political programs at the College of American Pathologists. The webinars can cover lobby day talking points and reference material, training members on everything from the different branches of government to how to use the virtual meeting platform. “I like to give them a lesson in Congress 101,” she says.
”"It’s really important to have some sort of swag that identifies your group as you’re walking out on Capitol Hill. Make it something unique and iconic to your organization."Joe FrancoImmediate past president, The Advocacy Association
4. Think Outside the Box
Creative strategies are essential to ensuring your fly-in makes a lasting impression on lawmakers. “There is an arsenal of different tools on the technology side that we can use,” said Joshua Habursky, head of government affairs at Premium Cigar Association. For example, at World Vision’s virtual advocacy summit they were able to have speakers pre-record a message for advocates, including Senator Marco Rubio and Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate. These speakers might not have been available for an in-person meeting, but were available to stream live or with a recorded message, shares Steve Reynolds, director of advocacy mobilization at World Vision.
One way to help your fly-in pack a punch is to use swag to “brand” your advocates. “It’s really important to have some sort of swag that identifies your group as you’re walking out on Capitol Hill,” says Joe Franco, immediate past president of The Advocacy Association. For instance, Franco has used colorful scarves or sashes, while Home Depot advocates wear orange vests on the Hill. A group Tucker worked with used branded rickshaws to take lobby day participants from the House to the Senate. “Make it something unique and iconic to your organization,” Franco recommends.
Or work with public figures, celebrities, or influencers to help get your message across. When Franco worked at the American Diabetes Association, they reached out to the NFL Players Association to recruit players to support the cause. One player from every NFL team was able to join them in D.C. for lobby day. “That made it much easier to get meetings, we got tons of press and publicity, and it cost me zero money,” Franco says. Because he found the right issue for the right people at the right time, he amplified the association’s message and stood out from other groups. “The players loved the experience — they all put it on their social media and helped us fundraise afterward,” he adds.
5. Face-to-Face Matters
While virtual fly-ins became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, now in-person lobby days are being emphasized. But virtual events aren’t going anywhere, Tucker says. Most groups she sees are pushing for completely in-person fly-ins, but some still have virtual meetings because of the greater flexibility it affords.
“My advice is to not do a virtual meeting on the same day that you’re physically on the Hill,” Tucker says. “Set aside another day to try to schedule those virtual meetings.” In other words: stick with completely virtual or completely in-person fly-ins — the days of hybrid events are no more.
Many advocacy experts say in-person visits should be the standard once again. During the pandemic, virtual-only lobby days brought lots of excitement, activity, and new advocates, concedes Franco. “But I didn’t see the follow-through after the event,” he says. “We didn’t get the return on investment like we would have in an in-person meeting.” Franco says virtual meetings should just be one tool in an advocacy professional’s toolbox. “You get better results by having advocates meet face-to-face,” he says. “It’s harder to write them off.”
”"My advice is to not do a virtual meeting on the same day that you’re physically on the Hill. Set aside another day to try to schedule those virtual meetings."Kirstie TuckerFounder, DC Fly-Ins
6. Follow Up
You can also get creative with “leave-behinds” to help lawmakers remember the key points after a meeting. This one-pager should include important information about the advocate running the meeting, your issue, and your organization. Format the leave-behinds in a visually appealing, easy-to-follow format and consider sending them before the meeting so legislators can come prepared.
An important follow-up step after a fly-in is measuring success. Create a report that shows the number of attendees, how many meetings took place, how many states were represented, and how many advocates continued to take action for the rest of the year.
It’s helpful to send an evaluation survey to advocates after the fly-in, whether they attend in person or virtually. This is a valuable time to learn how you can improve and what you did well to help prepare for the next event.
Remember that a fly-in is much more than a one-day event — it’s a relationship with lawmakers and advocates that is built throughout the year. “If you build relationships year-round, you will have a much better meeting when you’re in D.C.,” Tucker says. Spend your year training advocates, encouraging them to engage lawmakers on social media and via email, and learning how to best tell their story.
7. Leverage Digital Advocacy Technology
In this fast-paced world of short attention spans, it’s more important than ever to have the right advocacy solution that help your fly-ins stand out. Whether in person, virtual, or both, VoterVoice gives you the tools you need to conduct a successful fly-in.
VoterVoice is there to help you organize and engage supporters and measure your impact, while ensuring that your message is heard by those with the power to enact change and drive results.