The launch of the eighth edition of the Executive Programme in Advocacy in International Affairs is a good time to reflect on the changing face of advocacy. When we first designed it back in 2011, advocacy was an emerging discipline seen by many as synonymous with grassroot engagement and campaigning. There were very few jobs focused solely on advocacy, which was considered to be a niche focus. The international landscape also seemed simpler with more clarity and distinction between communications and the channels of influence. Social media was still considered to be the domain of Millennials, a new generation of digital natives whose influence was still nascent.
Fast forward to 2019
Advocacy has become an integral part of many business strategies. Millennials have taken over decision-making roles in a number of organisations. The boundaries between the different media and communications channels are no longer meaningful. Many roles now require a thorough understanding of advocacy, as reflected by its inclusion as a requisite skill on a growing number of job descriptions. Typically, it’s a consideration for positions relating to project management, communications, and external relations. Many organisations founded to represent the interests of different groups or industries have come to realise that advocacy is their raison d’être.
This “mainstreaming” of advocacy comes with its own set of challenges, but – like all great challenges – they can be turned into new opportunities if they’re well managed:
- There are more advocates, which means that there are more messages crowding every space. As a result, it’s important to create stronger and more distinct narratives
- More and more professionals describe themselves as advocates. But the quality of their preparation and delivery varies. Consequently, advocacy skills should be acknowledged and certified
- Many advocacy professionals follow the example of lobbyists and avoid any meaningful assessment on the impact of their work. Therefore, the use of common, outcome-focused measurement frameworks to evaluate the efficiency of an advocacy strategy is crucial
- Stakeholders and decision-makers are increasingly confused about the interests represented by different groups of influence. This calls for greater transparency and disclosure
A strategic approach
There is no doubt that an increasingly complex landscape of issues originating from a wide source of interest groups creates fertile ground for advocacy professionals. However, given the challenges listed above, a strategic approach to advocacy has become paramount to achieving the objectives of any ambitious influencing programme. The best advocacy strategies incorporate the following elements:
- Clearly defined outcomes that concentrate the efforts of advocacy campaigns and ensure they can be tied directly to organisational business objectives
- A thorough understanding of the wider stakeholder context based on a comprehensive programme of deep listening, to ensure the promotion of an individual organisational agenda is done in line with stakeholder priorities
- Strong narratives that underpin all communication activities. A narrative is the most important tool organisations have to influence global discourse
- An understanding of what success looks like and a system of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that ensures advocates can express success in measurable terms
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but covering all of those points should avoid the main pitfalls of ineffective advocacy. Focusing efforts on working smartly and efficiently in line with a clearly defined campaign strategy aligns advocacy with organisational objectives. It puts an organisation in a good position to respond to future shifts in the way influence strategies evolve. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other emerging technologies are set to have a big impact sooner rather than later.
Co-Director Executive Certificate Advocacy in International Affairs, Graduate Institute
Managing Director International Strategy, Leidar
Image: Professionals attending a class in Villa Barton, 2018.