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How To Lobby Public Officials

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Despite its reputation, lobbying has only one indispensable commodity--integrity. If you lose it, you have lost the ability to work with your public officials. The problem is rarely that people tell outright lies. Rather, itís the gray area where the information presented may mislead the person being lobbied.

For example, if you approach a member of your city council to oppose a smoking ban and, in response to a question about local support, "forget" to mention the 10,000 signatures on a petition by the councilman's constituents supporting the ban, you have not made an honest presentation. There is no more important rule and no second chance on credibility. If you lose it, it's gone.

Build bridges before you need them; it is much easier to build a strong bridge over calm waters than during a raging flood. Far too many constituents come to their elected officials at the eleventh hour, on the brink of a political disaster, having never established relationships.

If you spend time getting to know the key players before the crisis, you can address problems in advance. If you don't know your city council, county commissioners, state representatives and senators, congressmen and U.S. senators, now is the time to build the acquaintance.

While it is true that "who you know" is important, the merits of your case also count. Spend time analyzing the merits of your case from the vantage of what is good for the public and your community. Make this the cornerstone of your presentation. Frame your issues with local politics in mind because all politicians are concerned about the impact on their constituents. Recruit allies from the districts of key decision makers.

When lobbying, one always has the tendency to go directly to the decision-maker, but donít ignore their staff who provides advice and guidance. Identify and court the staff members especially when the issues are complex.

Find out who really counts in the decision-making process. It's not always obvious. Do some homework. The person who seems to have the authority on the line chart, may not. Decision-makers will often delegate their authority to someone else. It isn't hard to find out who that person is, just call the office of the official involved to be sure. Consistently ask people who else you should contact. You will soon see a pattern that will lead you to the key player or players. It is a simple technique that can provide great results.

Most elected officials are very street smart, and itís easy to underestimate their ability to put your issue into perspective. One of the biggest mistakes is to generate a lobbying campaign that is not genuine. After receiving a birage of postcards, some officials will call a few of the senders to determine if they understand the issue. If they donít, the campaign can easily backfire. Generally, a handful of letters written with genuine concern in the words of the senders will be far more effective than a contrived postcard campaign from 100 constituents.

Next to integrity, civility is a key attribute for successful lobbying. Itís essential to be gracious whether you win or lose. You may not win the issue at hand but don't destroy the relationships you have fostered. Burning bridges is one of the worst things you can do in politics. The person who is your opponent today may be your champion tomorrow.

The democratic process is designed to ensure the greater good for all. A moderate request which recognizes the positions of all interests will be viewed as more fair and thus more likely to succeed than special interests. Determining what the reasonable approach to your issue is may be a challenging task. TRA can be a valued partner in this step.

Address the views of your opponents with respect and never ever threaten political retribution. Demands should be avoided as well. Requests for a politician's support should always be made politely, with the justification of sound policy.

Always look to the politician's leaning or stance on an issue. If they are adverse to your view don't give them information which can prepare them to oppose you. If they are neutral, focus on them as the "swing vote" which can determine the outcome of any political battle. If you have a commitment from a politician to support you, recheck their resolve. Often the opposition can turn their view, and you must counteract this.

Since time is an extremely precious commodity to politicians, donít waste it. During your appointment, be friendly but get to the point in a serious fashion. This conveys that your issue is a serious one and worthy of significant attention.

Prepare a ONE-page summary of your issue for your coalition members and for the officials you are attempting to persuade. Plan to leave the summary paper along with any supplementary information. Send a thank you note after the meeting. Follow-up letters and phone calls convey your persistence and dedication to the issue.

A better means of thanking your elected official is to send a check at election time. The official will welcome your check if the contribution is legal and you understand the etiquette of political giving. This etiquette is simple. If you act as though your contribution has bought you a large piece of your official, you will be disappointed. No politician likes to consider him or herself as being in debt to campaign contributors. Some will even go so far as to return the contributions. Contributions help but they wonít buy you a vote.

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Be a Source of Reliable Information

In the political arena, information is power. To the extent that you are working closely on an issue and talking to elected officials and staff, you will occasionally hear information that will be of interest to others. A lobbyist who knows what is happening on a particular issue can rapidly become a person very much in demand but will become an outcast if they gain the reputation as a gossip.

The line is crossed when the lobbyist shares political rather than substantive information. Substantive information relates primarily to what has officially happened, details usually available from clerks or official publications. Political information is never available in official form; it relates to such things as the underlying objectives for a measure, the political dynamics of the process and such niceties as who is responsible for the development of an issue. Such details are anecdotal in character and hence unreliable.

You can offer to give officials feedback--the official, candid and confidential reactions about the affect on your industry. Tell the official to call you whenever he or she thinks your particular expertise can be of use, regardless of the issue. If the official's experience with you is positive, you will have made a major stride in establishing a valued friendship with your elected representative.

Without exception, politicians react positively to "no-strings-attached" offers of help. Use this approach to your advantage. Finally, don't be offended if your offer of help is declined. Often, the personality or working style of an official dictates that he or she keep a certain distance from constituents. For these officials, your offer alone may yield dividends.

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"Hired Guns"

Paid consultants can be extremely valuable in helping you in a political fight. They understand the process and have spent a great deal of effort establishing their own entrees to the decision-makers. But shop carefully and understand that no consultant or lobbyist can do it all for you. When considering a paid consultant, here are a few of the questions you should ask:

  • What kind of experience does the firm and its principals have in your field? A famous tax lawyer will not be much help in obtaining a change in public health regulations. Don't finance their on-the-job training.
  • What is their track record? Have they handled issues such as yours and with what kind of success? If they haven't, why should they represent you?
  • How will your business stack up against other clients in terms of the firmís priorities? While a small, hungry firm might devote more time than a large one with a multitude of clients, it may not have the needed resources.
  • Who is really going to do the work? Ask to meet all the people who will be working on your account and what percentage of the work each will be doing. Then spend time with them. Find out how busy they are and make a judgment about your personal chemistry with them.
  • If they promise a magic fix or guaranteed results, beware. There is no magic and no one can assure you of success. Hiring a consultant won't relieve you of doing work. In fact, a good consultant will suggest things for you to do that you haven't thought of.
  • Do they understand the political process? Can they explain to you in simple terms what needs to take place for you to win your issue? If they can't, keep looking.
  • What kind of personal or political ties do they have with key decision-makers? Do they make political contributions to these people? Have they been visible supports of the opponents to these elected officials? Insist that they be candid in informing you of relations, good and bad, with the key players.

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