The 10 Things to Remember When Lobbying a Government Official June 22, 2013

The 10 Things to Remember When Lobbying a Government Official

Since working as legal counsel for the Iowa legislature, Amanda Knief has held positions of tremendous responsibility within our movement. She worked as the lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America and currently serves as the Managing Director for American Atheists.

She is the perfect person, really, to write a book about how regular citizens can become effective lobbyists because she’s been doing it herself for years, with and without an official title.

Amanda’s new book on the subject is called The Citizen Lobbyist: A How-to Manual for Making Your Voice Heard in Government (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013). It’s all about what lobbying actually is and why you should do it — a great blueprint for grassroots activism that’s ideal for casual reading and high school libraries. The Kindle version of the book will be available on July 1st, but the paperback is available right now.

In the exclusive excerpt below, Amanda explains the 10 things to remember when lobbying an elected official:

You’re finally headed to the lobbying meeting you have been preparing for. Be sure to follow these ten important tips.

1. Be nice to the gatekeeper.

This is true for whoever greets you at a public official’s office. Whether you are greeted by a secretary, office manager, doorkeeper, receptionist, or security officer, be friendly and courteous. Not only is it the polite thing to do, but doing so makes a good first impression. Don’t assume that whoever is first to greet you is less important than the public official or staffer you are going to meet. I have seen elected officials handle the front office when office personnel were not available, been greeted by a senator’s chief of staff covering the phones over lunch, and met a mayor’s spouse when I stopped by at the end of the day for an appointment.

2. Introduce yourself and allow others in the group to do the same.

One of the purposes of the meeting is to allow constituents to interact with the public official or staffer. Even if not everyone in the group wants to have an active role in the conversation about the issue you are visiting about, it is important that each person have the opportunity to introduce themselves and shake the hand of whomever you are meeting. Personal contact cements conversations and increases the impact of your visit. Simply introducing everyone yourself does not have the same impact and gives the impression that the others in the group are less important.

3. Thank the public official, staffer, or regulatory official for something the public official or regulatory agency has done, even if not related to the issue you are lobbying about.

This is a good idea especially when the public official (or staffer) with whom you are meeting is not on your side of the issue you are visiting about. It is a shortcut to establishing common ground and requires that you do some research ahead of time. For example, if you are visiting a state legislator who is less likely to be on your side about the issue of minimum wage increases, but who voted in the past on the issue of education in a way that supports your views, bring up the education vote and thank the legislator for his or her vote and support on that issue. Successful citizen lobbying is predicated on trust and activism; the more you can show you know public policy and that you are paying attention, the more importance your opinion on your issue will carry over time.

4. Make friends with the public official, regulatory official, or staffer.

Small talk is an art and one that not many people are naturally gifted with; most of us have to learn it. This step can come before step 3 if it seems natural in the conversation. Again, this is another shortcut to creating common ground with the public official (or staffer) with whom you are meeting. As a lobbyist, I always followed the major national sports — not because I am a huge fan, but because for most men in politics sports are a common language. Being able to speak intelligently about a sport — and knowing how an elected official’s home professional or collegiate team is doing — can be a great conversation starter. It also is good to know something about the home district or state of any federal elected official you are going to speak to.

There are only a handful of states I have not visited, so I always have a story about visiting a state ready when I meet a senator. For the few states I have not visited, I have researched notable places I would like to visit that are true to me. I don’t ever lie when I am making small talk — it is all part of building relationships. So if you are not a skier, don’t talk about skiing with an elected official from Colorado — choose something else from the state that interests you. Often when I share this particular step, I get the questions, “Why do this?” and “Why waste the time getting to know a staffer?”

Each question has its own answer. First, I do this because I want the public official (or staffer) to see me as a person, not just another lobbyist. I want them to know I cared enough about the meeting to really pay attention to where the elected official was coming from. I want to try to start building that relationship — and that is the answer to why it is not a waste of time.

Unless you are a one-time citizen lobbyist, you will likely be back to your elected official’s office again about the same issue — or even about another one. Treating the person you are meeting as a fellow human being and not just as an obstacle to get through is good public relations. Thinking longer term, you don’t know where this person will end up — if a staffer, maybe he or she will run for office someday; if a state legislator, maybe he or she will run for U.S. Congress. A little effort to forge a relationship now could have a big payoff later.

5. Ask for the public official’s position on the issue or the regulatory agency’s timing for an issue.

Whether you are meeting with the elected official or the staffer, ask for the elected official’s position on your issue. You likely won’t get an answer from a staffer, who will say something about not speaking for the official. If you are meeting with the elected official, try to get them on the record — always. If you are meeting with a regulatory official about a policy issue, ask for the timing of a decision on the issue. Try to get a deadline. You probably won’t, but pushing is OK. Just push politely.

6. Make an action request.

Even if it is in your lobbying paper, you still need to bring up your “ask” in the meeting. This way you have the opportunity to see how the public official or staffer reacts, and he or she will have the opportunity to follow up with questions to be sure he or she understands what you are requesting. Don’t expect an answer one way or the other — most likely the public official or staffer will take it under consideration, or the staffer will take it to the official for his or her consideration.

7. Maintain composure.

It is hard to mess up being a citizen lobbyist. I always tell my audiences the two ways to know that you blew it are if you have been pepper sprayed or are being led away in handcuffs. Otherwise, you probably did great. However, that’s not to say it will be easy to handle yourself with dignity and speak respectfully to every public official with whom you meet. You need to be the better person though. You have more to lose than the public official or staffer.

At a 2012 national lobbying event in Washington, DC, my friend JT Eberhard took the plunge and lobbied for an afternoon. JT is one of the most honest and forthright people I have ever met. He tweeted after lobbying that he would never do it again because he was afraid he would end up biting through his tongue. JT’s lobbying meetings were less cordial than what most people experience, but he showed extreme grace by holding back his personal feelings and allowing the lobbying process to continue for the entire group.

8. Collect business cards.

Whether you are meeting with a local, state, or federal public official — or his or her staffer — each will have business cards. Collect them like lottery tickets. It can be difficult to find direct contact information for staffer and public officials, so if it is offered or you can ask for it in person — get it. You can also bring your own cards to a meeting. Creating a card for your forays as a citizen lobbyist is perfectly appropriate. Be sure to only put information on the card that you want to be made public. Also, don’t put the name of your employer or the name of an organization to which you belong on it without proper permission. Adding an employer or organization to a card could imply you are lobbying on behalf of your employer or the organization.

9. No kibitzing until you leave the building.

Kibitzing means to chat or talk informally — or to gossip. If you are in a group, don’t talk about how good or bad the meeting was while you are still in the building — continue to act professionally. If you are alone, likewise, don’t whip out your phone to call someone to dish about the meeting while still in government offices or hallways. Wait until you are out of the building and can’t be overheard by others inside. You never know who could overhear that you just met with the mayor about issue X or with Representative Smith about issue Z. Most meetings with private citizens and lobbyists are known only to the public official’s office staff.

10. Follow-up with a thank-you e-mail.

Be sure to send a thank-you e-mail to each person you met with about your issue within twenty-four hours of the meeting. For all the reasons covered previously, regular mail is not the best choice for communication with public officials. The timing is important because if you wait too long, the public official or staffer will have forgotten the meeting you are referring to. The e-mail is a good reminder for him or her to do his or her own follow-up on your issue.

The Citizen Lobbyist: A How-to Manual for Making Your Voice Heard in Government is now available and it’s a wonderful tool for anyone who wants to have an impact on local, state, and national politics. In fact, you should ask your local library to get a copy.

For those who have blogs or podcasts, review copies of the book (as well as the author herself) are available to you! Just contact Pitchstone Publishing to set something up!

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