Lobbying for libraries can be a painfully earnest affair. But not so in New York State, where the New York Library Association (NYLA) adopted a playful new strategy to reach legislators and their staffs where they may be at their most receptive—relaxing with a drink after work.
NYLA didn’t break the rules by buying beverages for lawmakers…it simply provided a coaster for them. Bars in Albany, the state capital, that are popular with lawmakers sprouted the coasters in mid-February, in time to target the state budget process. They urged NYLA’s top legislative priority: fully funded state aid to libraries at $102 million, as stipulated in state education law.
A cents-ible strategy
NYLA executive director Jeremy Johannesen says the inspiration for the tactic was at least in part serendipity. During the last legislative session, as part of its messaging, NYLA had printed up pieces of card stock with a penny image that were essentially coaster size and shape. “There’s thousands of them left around the office,” he explained. “Over the summer, we were flipping them around the office while talking about how we don’t have the budget of many of the other advocacy groups that want to get their message in front of the legislature and trying to come up with ideas that meet them where they were. We know that a lot of them have a tendency to grab a drink after their workday, so we decided to get our message onto something bar establishments would embrace and wouldn’t cost them anything.”
Johannesen told LJ that the project was affordable: the organization printed 2,500 coasters at 33¢ each. One cost was definitely worth it, said Johannesen. “We purposely printed [the coasters] two-sided so people wouldn’t be tempted to put our message face down.”
As to getting the message in place, Mike Neppl, NYLA’s director of government relations and advocacy, is a longtime resident of the capital, so he knew which places to approach and had an established relationship with them. “I’m kind of a neighborhood guy,” he said.
“Legislators and their staff meet with so many groups and people during the course of a day, let alone a legislative session, that trying to break though that wall of noise for a smaller organization can be really difficult,” Neppl explained. “Getting it through in an atmosphere where they’re a little more relaxed and open to clever messaging” can help, especially because “it was a novel idea; nobody could remember it being done before. In terms of efficiency, directness, and cleverness, it really resonated.”
The innovative approach even got some press coverage in the capital, which only increased the message’s penetration further.
Of course, the coasters weren’t carrying the burden alone: NYLA continued its traditional advocacy activities, putting libraries and their stakeholders together with their representatives directly, as well.
Not just coasting
As for the campaign’s effectiveness, Neppl is calling it a win. While the state did not fully fund libraries (as it has not for some time), the legislature not only restored the $4 million cut to library funding that was proposed by the governor’s budget, it added another $1 million, making it the largest appropriation since 2007 and the second largest in more than a decade. However, that’s still only a 1.2 percent increase, leaving state library system aid still more than 15 percent under what is required by law and close to 1997 levels. NYLA’s official statement says the budget “represents a vast improvement over Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo’s proposed Executive Budget but also a failure on the part of our elected leaders to adequately address several inequitable realities faced by the library community” though it “continues to move state library aid along the path to full funding under the law. “
Taking the message home
Though they’ve served their turn, up in Albany, a few coasters are still floating around. But librarians don’t have to make a road trip to find one. “The library community itself embraced it; people were like, ‘I want one of those!’ ” Johannesen said. In the spirit of giving the people what they want, “You can order them on our website, too,” he said, adding jokingly, “We’re working on making on some of the money back.”