Lobbying 101

If you ask a cross section of lobbyists about their profession, you will
almost always get a wide range of answers. “What do you like/dislike about
your job,” “what is the best way to prepare for a career in lobbying,” “what
is the most important skill a lobbyist must possess”–the question doesn’t
matter; there is virtually never a consensus answer.

I say “virtually” because there is a single exception. There is one question
that always elicits the same answer:

Q: “What is your biggest challenge as a lobbyist?”
A: “Client relations”

Just as you are unlikely to get a consensus, much less unanimity, on any
other topic, there is no consensus as to the second most difficult
challenge, only an agreement that, whatever it is, it is a very distant

The subject of lobbyist-client relations is far too complex to address fully
in this column, but we can examine ways to avoid trouble in a few aspects of
the relationship.

1. Client acquistion: You are likely to be tempted to promise potential
clients that you can deliver whatever they want (or even more). Readers of
this column know that one my “Rules for Effective Lobbying” is to
under-promise and over-deliver. This is difficult when it results in losing
prospective clients to lobbyists who make promises of success that they know
they cannot deliver, but it is the right and ethical approach, and will
serve you and your reputation best in the long run.

For one thing, your initial promise regarding results plays a significant
role in shaping your client’s expectations. Unrealistic expectations will
result in untenable pressure to do the wrong thing (or the right thing at
the wrong time).

2. The lobbyist-client working relationship: This can be tricky since the
client is the “boss” (it is their money and their interest that is at stake)
but you are the expert in navigating the legislative terrain. The capitol is
a unique arena, and to succeed there you must be immersed in it so that you
are in sync with its rhythms, cycles, subtleties, codes and ethos, both
formal and informal. For one example, in a previous column, I discussed the
importance of patience. Every advocate can probably relate a painful (but
valuable learning experience) example of how they impatiently “snatched
defeat from the jaws of victory.”

The requisite patience can be particularly difficult when you have an antsy
client who is unfamiliar with the rhythms and cycles of the Legislature. In
such a situation you must resist not only whatever natural tendency you have
favoring activity for its own sake, but also pressure from your client to
“do something, anything.” Remember, your mission is to devise and execute
the right game plan, reformulating it as appropriate to respond to events,
it is not to act on every impulse.

To avoid problems in this area, you must establish the ground rules for your
working relationship with the client at the very start. The specific ground
rules may even be less important than the existence of a solid mutual
understanding regarding all aspects of your relationship, including how and
by whom decisions are to be made, the respective roles of the client and
advocate, timeliness and frequency of reports and updates, what defines and
constitutes “success” and much more.

It is also in the lobbyist’s interest to have an informed and educated
client. Generally, the more the client “gets” how the capitol functions, the
better. However, remember that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I
know of one instance where a lobbyist told a client: “Good news: The deal
between the governor and the pro tem has been struck and our bill will be
signed tomorrow!” The client, who had represented a statewide association in
Sacramento 25 years earlier, insisted, “That’s not possible: Our bill is in
its first house fiscal committee and, therefore, with all the requisite
committee and floor votes that must still take place, the earliest it can
possibly be enacted is three to four weeks from now. I am surprised you
didn’t know that!” Needless to say, all necessary rules were waived,
pursuant to the deal, and the bill was indeed signed the next day.

3. How the client can help (or hurt) its own cause: There are many different
contributions a client can make to the lobbying effort. Here are just a few
examples: Well-coordinated contacts and visits with legislators or their
staffs as well as with representatives of interest groups, expert witness
testimony at committee hearings, media contacts. To maximize the benefits,
the client must be able to trust the lobbyist to advise as to the who, what,
where, when and why of each of these activities.

One notable example is the client “Day in Sacramento,” where association
members descend on the capitol for visits with legislators and other key
people. This day can pay great dividends, or it can be a disaster, after
which even the best, most experienced lobbyist may have difficulty picking
up the pieces. To a significant extent, success depends on how well the
advocate pre-briefs the client. Your goals include making sure the client
“stays on message,” is familiar with the interests and positive and negative
“hot buttons” of everyone with whom they will be meeting, and is sure to
thank everyone for their consideration whether they agree with them or not.

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