Advocacy Engagement with Candidates Vying for Public Office

While the seemingly never-ending political cycle can be tiresome, the time can be a unique opportunity to get your message in front of candidates vying for public office.  

Roger Rickard, advocacy expert and Founder of Voices In Advocacy®, recently interviewed Carl Wilgus, President/CEO of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, regarding a specific advocacy event that he and his team have used to engage candidates that were vying for public office within his regional DMO. The program was called Coffee with the Candidates.

Voices In Advocacy (VIA):  Explain your tourism education program created for candidates vying for elected office within your DMO?

Carl Wilgus (CW):  We invited all candidates for county commissioner to participate in a one hour “coffee with the candidates” in which during the first part of the event we explained who we as the DMO, what we do, and shared our advocacy plan with the candidate.  Then we allowed the candidate to tell us about themselves, what they stood for, and what they expected to accomplish.  The event then finished up with a question and answer session.  A summary report of each candidate comments was generated and then forwarded to all our members in the county.  We encouraged the member to review and share the report with employees.

VIA:  How was the idea fostered?

CW:  I was aware of local realtor boards who have conducted similar efforts, and so I suggested to our Board of Directors that we do it also.  They thought it was a good idea and so we implemented (our own).

VIA:  Did you see any risk in this program?

CW:  No not really.  The biggest issue was should we do it prior to the primary election or wait until after when the field of candidate would be narrowed.  We chose the opportunity to meet and influence the largest number of people possible so chose to conduct the events before the primaries.

VIA:  Did you receive any additional unintended benefits from this program?

CW:  Two big things came of it.  During the debates leading up to the primary we found several of the candidates who used the information we had provided about tourism during the debates.  Then if by coincidence or as a result of our efforts the local paper did an article entitle “Pocono Power Brokers” in addition to the top 10 individuals they also acknowledged the “Most Powerful Institutions” of which the Tourism/Resort industry was selected #1 above the local university and county’s largest employer.

VIA:  Did you experience any negative fallout from your actions?

CW:  No, none at all.  We did make it very clear to everyone that we were not endorsing a candidate and then we summarized the candidates’ comments and shared them with our members and encouraged them to share the information with their staff.

VIA:  Have you used this concept since and have the benefits to the DMO changed?

CW:  Yes, we just completed a similar concept with two legislative district races where there is not an incumbent running in those races.  Similarly, our numbers and statistics are reused by candidates during the primary election.

VIA:  If you were to begin this program again, what would you change?

CW:  The only thing I can think of is that it would be nice to have more of our bureau’s members attend these “coffees with the candidates”.  I believe the best attended event drew ten people.

VIA:  What can other DMOs learn from your experience?

CW:  For us it was and always is about advocating for our industry and discussion policy issues that are important to our members.  It is not about politics and supporting one candidate or party over another.  Making the distinction between policy and politics is absolutely critical.

VIA:  Will you continue using this advocacy vehicle in the future?

CW:  Absolutely, we have already done it in two legislative races.

VIA:  What else would you like to add?

CW:  These are the kinds of things that make the DMO relevant and support the broader goals beyond sales and marketing.  Done correctly you build respect and establish leadership.

VIA: I would like to thank Carl for taking the time to share what I think is an excellent program to engage your potential elected officials before they begin serving and dealing with issues that affect your DMO.

Key Destination Advocacy Lessons

  • Engage candidates while they are looking for support to win their respective seat.
  • Take every opportunity you can to engage and educate candidates were elected officials on the value of your DMO.
  • Listen – you can learn a lot by asking them about themselves, what they stand for, and what they hope to accomplish.
  • Look for other potential benefits that you could derive from such an event.
  • It’s not about politics – it’s about policy.
  • Helps position you as a leader in the community.

Roger Rickard has been an advocate for citizen involvement since the age of 13. He was elected to public office as a young man, later served as a legislative staffer for the Pennsylvania State Legislature, and has worked on many local, regional and state campaigns as well as numerous Presidential campaigns. To view the original interview, please click here