Beyond traditional lobbying: how citizen advocacy is reshaping government relations

“If your issue is so important, why haven’t I heard about it from anyone else?” 

Good question. 

We’ve written before about what to do in situations where much-needed government action just isn’t happening. One common roadblock is when policymakers say they are unpersuaded about the wide-ranging impacts of a particular policy. It’s a clever deflection, but also a dare: You say this matters to a lot of people? Prove it. 

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre has adopted this posture, too. He’s a credible voice for grassroots activation; his leadership campaign sold over 300,000 CPC memberships (at just $15 a pop), which he turned into an easy first-ballot victory at the party’s convention. In his role as chief critic of the current government, Poilievre’s taken the same populist approach. 

His viewpoint was made ever clearer in a recent op-ed in the National Post, provocatively titled “Memo to corporate Canada: fire your lobbyist.” In it, he lays out a policymaking vision that eschews corporate lobbying for a citizen-driven agenda.  

“If you do have a policy proposal, don’t tell me about it,” Poilievre writes, “Convince Canadians that it’s good for them. Communicate your policy’s benefits directly to workers, consumers and retirees.”  He says that once a policy idea creates enough of a clamour amongst ordinary Canadians that he hears about it on doorsteps across the country, he will then consider enacting it. 

The Leader of the Opposition calling for corporate Canada to fire its lobbyists may feel new and bombastic, but the citizen engagement Poilievre suggests instead is not necessarily novel. In fact, the approach he’s referring to is a current best practice; smart organizations frequently rely on authentic voices to punctuate their policy asks of government.  

The grassroots lobbying that’s credible today—and will continue to be if there is a change in government—blends many areas of practice, including public affairs, community engagement, digital advocacy, and public relations to drive government relations goals. Its effectiveness is rooted in responsive and responsible government: activating and amplifying passionate citizen voices, in local constituencies, has always been among the most salient strategies for shaping public opinion and moving the needle with government. But the focus always needs to be on quality, not quantity.  (Political staffers will tell you that a deluge of identical emails to an elected official are typically filtered out.) 

We see successful examples all around us. The Ford Government in Ontario just struck a deal to allow beer and wine sales in convenience stores after years of grassroots outreach by the Ontario Convenience Stores Association, including a multi-year campaign that, among other things, featured a small business-led petition that garnered over 400,000 signatures. This year’s Bell Let’s Talk Day was met with a message from the federal Minister of Mental Health and Addiction announcing the Government’s commitment to exempting therapy sessions from sales taxes and championing its new 9-8-8 suicide hotline.  

Perhaps the most telling way to understand the established efficacy of advocacy campaigns is by looking at the federal Lobbying Act. “Grass-roots communications” is a registerable activity under the Act—so even ditching your traditional lobbyist and pivoting to a grassroots strategy is almost certain to reset your Days Without a Lobbyist counter back to zero. 

Poilievre’s position on corporate lobbying is therefore unlikely to herald an entirely new form of engagement, but rather serves as an acknowledgement of accelerating trends in our communications environment like decentralized structures of influence, shrinking elite media, and a constituent-centric advocacy model that grows from the ground up. 

Simultaneously, the evolution of digital communications means that engaging decision-makers is less about old school lobbying and more about recalibrating your organization’s public affairs function to better reach key policymaking audiences. Deploying advocacy campaign strategies to influence policy is a flexible and cost-effective way to bypass gatekeepers to directly engage with decision-makers.  

For example, think about a new entrant in a sector with a small number of entrenched incumbents. Instead of relying on establishment-aligned business groups in that sector, what about a social media campaign that engages ordinary Canadians looking for more competition and lower costs for consumers? The tactical possibilities—everything from influencer videos to viral contests to live-streamed petition drives—could highlight and capture an authentic groundswell of support that isn’t easily dismissed.  

We know that the way we communicate with government is changing. It will continue to evolve through the next election, regardless of the outcome. But what’s already clear is that organizations big and small need a gameplan that frames their asks of government in the context of how the changes will benefit ordinary Canadians—and to never be afraid of enlisting those same Canadians to amplify good policy through their own stories and experiences. 

Want to read more?