Personal Contacts Educate Office Holders

By Charlene Komar-Storey

Today, “lobbyist” is often considered a dirty word. But lobbying — trying to convince a lawmaker to see your point of view on an important issue — serves a critical role in educating public officials on every level. And it’s not limited to expense influence peddlers on K Street in Washington. Every citizen should be a lobbyist for issues and causes he believes important, including those that affect his business.

One of the most effective ways to communicate with an official is through direct contact, and a formal meeting is ideal. This is true even if you’re talking about meeting with a mayor or councilperson in a small town, according to Dr. Dennis Pope, political science instructor at New Jersey’s Kean University.

“In local government, there’s a certain intimacy,” he says. You may stand behind the mayor in a supermarket check-out line, to bump into a council member at church. “But when you set up an appointment, you focus on a particular issue.” It gets your point across more clearly and forcefully than when you add a “by the way” to a chat about the high school football team.

But if you intend to lobby an elected official in person, be she your town’s mayor or one of your state’s United States senators, you need to plan in order to get the most out of your efforts.

At bottom, it’s as simple as writing or calling for an appointment. But you have some homework to do first.

Getting to Know Them

It’s best to become acquainted with public officials before you need to ask for their support on a bill or to take other action that will benefit you or your business.

You might want to have a get-acquainted meeting — perhaps one at which you invite the official to visit your business and see what it’s really like.
Frequent contacts are necessary so that the official will associate your name and face with your issue — and to have any significant impact, you should focus on just one or two issues.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask to see an official when a bill is introduced that you feel strongly about, even if you have had no prior contact. It’s just ideal to have laid some groundwork.

Keep in mind that manners are important. “You don’t have to bow and scrape or curtsy,” says Pope, “but when talking to, say, a state senator or assembly member, address them by their title.”

Be Prepared

Make sure you’re thoroughly prepared before any meetings. The point is to educate the official about your issue, and to do that well, you must be informed yourself.

If you’re meeting someone who was recently elected to the position and you’re not familiar with him, you also should educate yourself about the new officer-holder.

What are her priorities and interests? Has she ever spoken publicly about your issue, or about check cashing or payday lending in general?

If you know the person’s history and political background, you’ll have a sense of how he might think about your issue before you begin your conversation.

Set it Up

Be sure you have an appointment. If you just drop in to the official’s office, even if you are able to see the person, you may wait for quite a while, or force her to postpone something else. In either instance, one or both of you may be in a negative mindframe by the time the meeting starts — not an auspicious beginning.

Even if you have met a time or two before, introduce yourself. Don’t embarrass the official by making her grope for your name.

Keep It Short

It’s often helpful to mention any personal connection you might have, no matter how minor you might think it is. If you have friends, relatives or colleagues in common, let the official know.

Then get right down to business. Remember that officials have limited time, staff and, frankly, interest in any issue.

If you want to discuss specific legislation, make sure you know the name and bill number, as well as the committee where the bill is currently located.

Be able to tell the official what the bill will or won’t do, and most critically, why it is important to you, your industry and the community at large. You will have a better chance of getting what you want if you can show how it will also benefit most of the official’s constituents.

You should also mention other individuals, groups or public officials who support your position.

Use personal stories or anecdotes to get your point across. These leave an image that people just don’t get from statistics.

Tell the legislator, for instance, how a loan you made helped a single mother cover a check to the electric utility to avoid getting her power cut off. Tell him the charges — know the exact amounts — she’d have had to pay to her bank and the utility for bounced checks and to get the power turned back on. That kind of anecdote means more than dry figures.

You should have as much information at your fingertips as possible. Anticipate the arguments your opponents might be making, and have facts available to counter them.

If the official has a question you can’t answer, simply say, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I can get the information for you.” Then follow up.

Fact Sheet

At the same time, you don’t want to overwhelm the official with details.

Before the meeting, put together a concise, one-page fact sheet. Decide which are the most important points, and bring these up in the meeting — it’s unlikely that you’ll have time to get to everything. Then leave the sheet, along with any other written information that might be useful, with the official or one of his staff members.

Romance the Staff

Speaking of staff members, don’t be insulted if you end up meeting with a staffer rather than the official herself. It’s an opportunity to develop a positive relationship with an official’s staff, which is extremely valuable.

Staff members are highly influential; officials often rely heavily on their advice. They are the officials’ primary human data-banks, and the gatekeepers of their offices. A good relationship with them can really help your cause.

As the meeting winds down, be specific about what you want from the official. If you want a vote, make sure you ask for it directly and get an answer.

Then thank her for her time, even if she doesn’t agree with you.

Finally, follow up. Find out if the official did what he promised. And it’s vital to thank him if he voted for your position.

Posted in Spring 2009.