Lobbying 101

In response to reader requests, in my last column I started a review of the principles I had written about in previous weeks. Part I covered the highlights of earlier columns on the characteristics of an effective lobbyist, my rules for effective lobbying, and finding the right author for a sponsored bill. The full discussions of these aspects of lobbying can be found online in Capitol Weekly’s archived stories.

The review continues this week, as Part II features highlights from earlier columns covering “Advice from Legislative Staff” and “Client Relations.”

Advice from Senior Legislative Staff
Some common themes recurred in the advice they offered, as seen in these excerpts:

“Don’t come see me for the first time when you want something. And when you come, bring facts and information, not anecdotes.”

“Know what you are talking about when you propose a change in public policy. No serious legislative staff is interested in your good looks or Kings’ tickets.”

“Don’t lie about the contents of your bill. When you are caught, your bill will die about as fast as your reputation.”

“Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Playing hide the ball just pisses me off. I’ll figure it out eventually. Remember, there is always next time.”

“Don’t procrastinate. All committees have deadlines to complete their analysis. If you want your arguments to be included in the analysis, provide the consultant with your letter and supporting info at least a week before the hearing.”

“Work with an author on any concerns about their bill before going to other parties. Most authors will try to work through an issue. You may win the war going around the author on that particular bill but you will lose the ability to work with their office in the future.”

“There are two fundamental guidelines to successful lobbying: relationships and honesty. A key tool to good lobbying is building strong relationships with consultants, as they play a pivotal role in the delivery and malleability of legislation. Most importantly, a lobbyist should know that a good reputation is vital to achieving success. To do so, it is necessary for a lobbyist to be forthright and honest about the pros and cons of relevant legislation.”

Client relations
Every experienced lobbyist views client relations as their biggest challenge. Let’s review some of the ways to avoid trouble in a few aspects of the relationship.

1. Client acquisition
You will be tempted to promise potential clients that you can deliver whatever they want (or even more). Fight that temptation. Instead underpromise and overdeliver. This is difficult when you then lose prospective clients to lobbyists who promise success they know they can’t deliver, but it is the right and ethical approach and will serve you and your reputation best in the long run. Your initial promise also helps ensure that your client’s expectations are realistic.

2. The lobbyist-client working relationship
The client is the “boss” (it is their money and their interest at stake) but you are the expert in navigating the legislative terrain. The Capitol is a unique arena: To succeed, you must be immersed to the point that you are in sync with its rhythms, cycles, subtleties, and formal and informal codes and ethos. For just one example, every advocate can probably cite a painful (but valuable learning experience) example of how they impatiently “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

The requisite patience can be difficult when you have an antsy client who does not fully comprehend the Legislature’s rhythms and cycles. In such a situation, you must not only resist whatever natural tendency you have favoring activity for its own sake but you also must resist pressure from your client to “do something, anything”. 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 start. The specific ground rules are less important that a solid mutual understanding regarding all aspects of your relationship, including how and by whom decisions will 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.

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; and media contacts. To maximize the benefits, the client must be able to trust the lobbyist to advise as to 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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