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Bird-Dogging Candidates: Why and How

Bird-dogging is one of the most effective ways to become aware of the positions of candidates who are running for political offices at the local, regional, state, and national levels.

Bird-dogging refers to a concerted effort to follow candidates through their campaign stops—both within and outside your region—in order to relentlessly raise a question that pins down their position on an issue you care about.
When done well, bird-dogging involves being careful to:

  • Ask the same question, in the same words, and of every candidate
  • Record each candidate’s answer each time the question is asked

As long as you are careful to bird-dog all candidates, not just the ones that support your issues, bird-dogging is not considered too political of an activity for nonprofit organizations to engage in. Of course, this is not formal legal advice; if you have any questions, there are many resources available from the Internet, trade associations, and your agency attorney.

Benefits of Bird-Dogging

Bird-dogging offers several benefits:

  • Keeping Candidates Honest. Bird-dogging is a way of tracking where each candidate stands on an issue throughout the course of their campaign. Because it’s not unusual for candidates to switch positions, keeping a record of their response on a particular date, in a particular location, and to a particular type of audience helps you hold them accountable if later on they switch.
     
  • Keeping Your Issue on the Front Burner. Raising the same couple of issue-related questions at candidate events across your region reminds candidates and their staff that this is an issue relevant to constituents and one that it is not going to just go away. Beyond that, it also keeps your issue and questions in the plain view of the media, who cover candidate events, and in view of the public, who attend candidate events and see the local media reports about what questions were asked of candidates.

  • Building Your Image as an Expert and Keeping Your Organization in Public View. If the questions you construct cite data or reports from your agency, you build your reputation among the candidates, their staffs, the public, and the media as a local expert.
     

How to Bird-Dog Effectively

Following candidates through their various campaign stops could take considerable time and travel, especially if your service area is large.

It’s a good idea to recruit the assistance of people who can represent you in far-flung areas. This addresses the practical challenge associated with covering a large service area, but it’s also good for candidates to hear more than one voice raising this issue.

More specifically, you should:

  • Recruit Volunteers. These could be clients and their families, staff members, board members, community advisory board members, or church outreach volunteers who recognize the value of your services to the families, children, and older adults in your community.
     
  • Train Volunteers. To reach the greatest number of people, hold several training workshops, in several locations, at different times of the day.
     
  • Arm Volunteers with Information. Explain the basics of bird-dogging and what it can gain for your particular issues during a campaign. Stress how the issue immediately impacts your service area and families who are your volunteers’ friends, neighbors, and relatives. Use stories to arm and inspire them.
     
  • Provide Printed Questions. Arm the volunteers with one to three key questions, with good follow-up questions. Questions can be printed on small index cards, or on a piece of paper that’s small and sturdy enough for them to keep in their wallets. Explain to the volunteers that they should bring these questions with them when they go to candidate events. They also should keep the questions handy for times when they happen to run across a candidate in a public place.
     
  • Review the Logistics. Think about how you will ensure your questions are asked at public candidate events. Trained volunteers should be instructed to arrive early and station themselves near any obvious microphones set up for public questions.
     
  • Role Play to Prepare for Public Events. Prepare volunteers for various kinds of candidate interactions. Have volunteers take turns pretending to be the candidate and the questioner. Have them get comfortable speaking or reading all of one to three questions you provide. Have the “candidate: try to evade answering, and have the questioners press their point with a quick follow-up question, such as, “You have not answered my question, Senator. Would you promise not to cut essential services for families and children in our state, or not?”
     
  • Role Play to Prepare for Private Events. Demonstrate the technique of pressing questions in private situations, such as private fundraisers or in crowds when a candidate interacts with the public. Volunteers should have their questions ready to ask and be trained to shake hands with the candidate and not let go of his or her hand until they get their question asked and answered. The candidate’s staff will be trying to move the candidate through the crowds, but the candidate will not want to appear rude. Be sure volunteers know to record these responses, since they are often more informal and honest than those asked in more public arenas. As you role play, have someone take the roles of the candidate, the questioner, and the staff person.

  • Provide an Email Address for Recording Purposes. This email address can be used by volunteers to report candidate responses in a timely way. This should be an email address that is checked daily. When you receive information from volunteer bird-doggers, you should send a personal “thank you” response and keep a record of each question asked and answer received, the location, the setting, the number of people present, and the date and time.
     
  • Share Responses Strategically. Responses received from candidates can be shared with the media if the media was not present to hear the response firsthand. You can distribute a news release that quotes the candidate, and either approve of or disapprove of the candidate’s answer. You can also share candidates’ responses with other human services allies in the region.
     
  • Include Public Relations Staff. For the length of the campaign, include your public relations staff person in the effort to set up workshops, provide media training, communicate with bird-dogging volunteers, and help monitor where each candidate stands on your issues. Your public relations staff person is best equipped to construct the “report card” for each candidate to articulate formal stated positions.
     
  • Think Strategically and Be Flexible. During the course of any election campaign, the process is dynamic and change is rapid. Be prepared to call off your bird-doggers if the candidate that most supports your position and issues begins to be assailed for defending your services, budget, or agency. In this case, continuing to keep questioning him or her about support could work against you, and for the opposition. You could inadvertently be hurting the very candidate who is most your advocate and ally.
     

What to do After the Election

Don’t waste the talent and relationships you’ve developed. At the end of the campaign:

  • Write a congratulatory note to the winner, stressing your hopes that he or she will continue to represent the human needs of families, children, and older adults in your region.
     
  • Write a sympathetic note to the campaign losers, stressing your appreciation for their service and hoping you will be able to work together again to solve the human service needs of constituents in your community.
     
  • Hold a thank you party for volunteer bird-doggers, honoring them for the time they spent and their professionalism. Provide framed certificates of appreciation or other awards. Remember to include your volunteers in any local award ceremonies for volunteers, and invite them to agency future events and celebrations to keep them connected.
     
  • Keep your volunteers in the fold. They received great training and are now seasoned political bird-doggers. They also have great potential for being informal advocates on your behalf. They now know the facts and figures about how much the services you provide matter to their community. With or without you or your staff, they can plead your case with legislators, respond with phone calls or emails to legislators, and provide feet on the ground to circulate and collect petitions or do other important behind-the-scenes work.
     
  • Try to develop these trained volunteers into a Citizen Advocacy Committee that meets with you and your managers, perhaps quarterly, to discuss what your current legislative goals, what bills can help or hurt your agency and your clients, and what their role could be in keeping your issues on the front burner with legislators. It’s possible that this could evolve into a cooperative committee that services any or all members of any coalitions that worked with you during the campaign. Not all of them will want to participate, but some will, especially if you can show them that their work can be important for keeping funding and services in place for their community.
     

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