Bird-Dogging Guide: Get Them on The Record

What is Bird-Dogging?

Bird-dogging is a powerful tactic used by grassroots activists to get candidates and elected officials on the record about important issues. Indivisible activists have bird-dogged visibly and effectively since Indivisible’s inception. Did you ask a question about the ACA at a town hall? Did you ask a congressional candidate to commit to a position on democracy reform? Or make the local news for not letting your MoC off the hook on immigration? Have you shared a recording of your interaction publicly? You are already an Indvisi-birddogger. 

Grassroots constituents like you can often get officials to say things they would never reveal in a more structured interview. Such revelations are vital as we turn our attention to the presidential candidates and attempt to learn what they really think, and will really do, about core issues like health care, democracy reform, immigration and climate. Let’s bird-dog our candidates out of the bush and into the light of accountability. 

Whether you’re an experienced or fledgling Bird-Dogger, these instructions and reminders will help you corner those candidates with confidence.

Indivisible Bird-dogging Goals for the Presidential Primaries

  • Pressure presidential candidates to go on record on core issues such as democracy reform, immigration, climate, abortion, racial justice, health care, and foreign policy.

  • Get the candidate’s responses covered by the media/press (earned media). 

  • Elevate Indivisible’s profile—and your group’s profile—so more people know who we are and what we do. Increased name recognition builds our power nationally and locally. 

  • Inspire others to join and get involved in our campaigns/organizations—build our people power.

Recruit and Train Your Squad

Bird-dogging is best done with a group of people that are dedicated to getting a candidate on record and can take on a variety of necessary roles. Your squad should be nimble, fearless, and dedicated to tracking down candidates (even if it means listening to the same stump speech over and over again).

At the very least, you need two people to pull off a successful birddog -- one person to take action and one person to film or take a photo. An ideal squad has at least one person for each of the following roles (or two, or three, or four so you can sub in based on availability).

Question askers: These are the members of your group that are bold and assertive. Think about the members of your group that ALWAYS ask to speak to the manager and don’t give up until they are satisfied by the answer they are seeking. 

Recorders: These folks are diligent, good on their feet, and always remember to hold the camera in landscape mode.

Spokesperson: The best spokespeople are good communicators who can talk to press, upload your video footage on your social media sites, and report back on your findings. Be sure to tag @IndivisibleTeam in your posts on twitter! 

Trackers/Researchers: These squad members might not be as comfortable asking questions in person but they are great at doing research and tracking the target. They know how to scour candidate websites and social media platforms and have all the best google alerts set up. 

Pro-tip: Once you’ve filled your key roles, invite a novice or two along. They’ll feel more confident about joining the squad fully after some no-stakes exposure to the process. 

Find Opportunities

It is primary season! That means that in the early states, candidates are hosting events, launching canvasses, attending barbeques, and grabbing coffee at the local diner. When you know which candidate you want to target, your Trackers can search their websites, sign-up for their newsletters, or call their local campaign office to ask about upcoming public events. 

Pro Tip: Sometimes events are posted only a few days—or even a few hours--in advance. Work with your Trackers to create a rapid response Bird-dog squad that can mobilize quickly. 

Indivisible and Town Hall Project collaborated on the map below to bring you up to date information on the public events of 2020 presidential candidates. 

Prep

Choose your question: Depending on the event, your squad will only get the chance to ask one or two questions. Before the event, make sure your squad is aligned on your top question. FInd more guidance on crafting the perfect question here

Plan your visuals: Sometimes you may not have an opportunity to ask a question but don’t worry! You can still make a statement with powerful visuals.  Print any supplementary materials you need in advance like placards, banners, t-shirts or bandanas. You can also bring props that relate to your issue, like toothbrushes if you want to ask about the concentration camps on our border. 

Plan your communication strategy: Set up a system for your team to communicate with one another during the event. A group text with everyone’s numbers in one message group works very well!

Pro Tip: review all the details. Even if your team has done this many times, set aside ten minutes the day before or the day of the event to review—together—all roles, confirm meeting times, transportation, mutual support, tech (phones all charged?) and plans for contingencies. You can confirm in a phone call, an email chain, text message—whatever communication works for your team. 

Bird-Dogging: Language Guidance!

We've provided general guidelines for bird-dogging language suggestions based on our priority issue areas! While this guide can help you focus your questions that elicit the right answers, remember that your voice is the essential ingredient. Use these tips, but always remember to speak from your own experience and values.

Learn More

Show Time! (err...Bird-dogging Time!)

You put together your squad, found an event, and decided on your questions. Now you are at the town hall, meet and greet, senior center, state fair. This is the fun part. Here’s how to pull of the best bird-dog possible.

Arrive early and get in a good position. This is especially important if the candidate is very popular, leading in the polls, or if it is late in the primary season. If there is a question-and-answer session, you'll want to be close enough for the candidate to see you and call on you. Be forewarned: Campaign schedules change quickly, and it is a rare candidate who arrives on time for an event, so build in some extra time.

Sit strategically. Avoid standing next to others on your team as you line up for questions. If you’re able to bring more than a few people to a town hall, don’t sit together so that you increase your chances of being called on. Exception: in some instances, you can plan to position yourselves so that you immediately follow-up each other’s dodged questions. This isn’t easy to do, especially when at town halls where people are selected at random to answer questions, but we’ve seen this work beautifully on occasion and sometimes happens organically.. There’s nothing like watching a squirming elected avoid answering a direct question only to find the next person asking the same question.

Ask your question early. When candidates invite questions, most people will not immediately raise their hands. If you do, you are more likely to be called upon. 

Keep your topic present. If you have an opportunity to have a conversation with your target, make sure you keep your topic present. For example, if you’re discussing healthcare, prime your target by mentioning healthcare directly, or the definition in every sentence.

Be in the candidate's path. Many candidates want to shake hands and meet as many people as possible at these events. The informal, unscripted contacts are extra opportunities to ask your questions. Position yourself in the candidate's path and ask your question as you're gripping his or her hand.

Take notes. The only way to track the responses of candidates in the moment is to take a record of what they said. It is also helpful to have notes if you are trying to frame a follow-up question. If you have a friend with you, each of you can write down the response to the other's question.

Take pics/video. Make sure you discuss who is going to record the interaction and post on social media. Remember pics or it didn't happen. 

Be prepared to speak to the media. Journalists often like to talk to someone who has asked the candidate a question. Remember to stay on message and talk to the reporter about the issue you asked about. 
Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t be afraid to say – Congressman/woman, that doesn’t answer my question. Then repeat it.  

Pro-tip: Many times the press will approach you after the event is over to ask you more questions, so be sure to stick around and/or approach them yourselves. 

Make it Count: Share your Story

Sharing your story on social media invites the public into your experience in a way that spotlights the issue you’re trying to bring to the floor. Your bird-dogging videos can alter the way the public thinks about a certain issue or politician. Post your video on social media with some context about the  event. As always, tag @IndivsibleTeam so we can amplify your work.

We are also collecting bird-dogging stories as part of our work building a constructive presidential primary. So report back by emailing field@indivisible.org.

Pro Tip: come armed with the twitter handles of local and national media as well as supportive issue groups and other high-profile allies who might amplify your tweet. Indivisible can provide you with a local media twitter contact list; ask your organizer!

Debrief

Grab coffee or cocktails with your team soon after the event. Review what went well, and what obstacles you faced, and determine what, if any, improvements or changes you’d like to make the next time around. No need to blame or criticize! If mistakes were made, if “record” buttons weren’t pushed or chargers forgotten, let it go, laugh if you can and move on. Supporting one another is far more important to our movement than any single action or video. 

Pro Tip: Report your successes and your challenges back to your Indivisible group and your Indivisible organizer. Everyone loves a good bird-dog story! Use it to recruit more Bird-Dogs for your team.