5 Biggest Mistakes in Advocacy

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Everyone blogs on how to be successful. We should take more about our failures. I think failures are a much more sensible way of learning. This holds especially true in the political arena where people rarely talk about what went wrong. To some degree we all know “what we should do”, but as Helmuth von Moltke candidly noted;  “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. So it’s better to learn from ‘mistakes’ than to forge a perfect plan only to see it crumble as soon as it’s applied in reality. So without further ado, here are my five biggest mistakes in advocacy. 

Starting too late 

Start on time. No other advice had been given more, yet has been taken to hear less. Trying to make governments or parliaments change their mind takes a lot of time. The same goes for agenda-setting. Think of politics as a market where you can buy products. Instead of euros or dollars, you pay with political capital. When you start a campaign late you will have to spend more political capital than you would if you started early. In extreme cases -like when you are in a political crisis- you will have to spend your capital faster than rappers in Gucci stores. This can all be avoided by starting with your case on time. Of course, sometimes crises present themselves, but my experience is that you can foresee most problems 90% of the time with strategic monitoring and planning. 

Treating the process as a flowchart 

When planning your advocacy or lobbying campaign you need to make a plan with milestones. However, it’s very tempting to draw out the whole process as a flowchart thinking that you can orchestrate it as a puppet master. The first action you will take will be ridden with problems. Things will not go as you plan. That doesn’t mean you should not plan, but don’t build dependencies in your plan. For example, if you talk to person A, he will talk to person B and that will influence person C. What happens is person A never read your email and person B has other problems. What you can plan however is a meeting with person A and B and then take it from there. Dealing with the secretary will be difficult enough, let alone trying to set in motion some master plan where things fall like dominoes.

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Underestimating power dynamics 

I have had my share of David vs Goliath cases where I was able to beat a much bigger force. However, this is very rare. Power dynamics are in constant play in politics. This starts with a parliamentary majority and runs through the majority whip all the way to staffers and the executive. I had a fisheries case where I really needed a prime minister to step in. However, the prime minister had no intention of dealing with fisheries. The parliament wasn’t able to force him even though some MPs were outraged.  In another case, I had Germany against me in the European Council. It almost becomes a mission impossible to win when you have Germany against you. Counter to what Hollywood wants you to believe, the underdog rarely wins in the political arena. 

Wishful thinking 

Prepare for the worst-case scenario; all the time. Every time that I assumed things would go well by themselves I ended up in crisis mode or damage control. Like this one time, I discovered a spelling mistake for an advertisement I paid 20K for. I trusted someone to do the final editing. I had to go to hell and back to get that fixed. Each and every assumption needs to be cross-checked.  Do you think someone has read your mail? They haven’t. Do you think somebody will show up on time? They won’t. By assuming things will go wrong you will double-check most steps and pay greater attention to detail. You will also be more critical of your own work if you jetton wishful thinking. Then when things do work as planned you will feel like it is your birthday

Worrying about details that don’t matter 

This is somewhat counter to the previous point. One of the biggest favors I did myself is worry about details that don’t matter. You can spend an enormous amount trying to craft the perfect position paper, debating the substance of a  tweet, or trying to think of the best name for your event. All things matter, but not everything is important. Give issues and the time they deserve and then move on. Your role as a lobbyist/activist/campaigner is to keep things moving. Spending more than a minute on tweets is silly. 

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