PR TECHNIQUE: Lobbying Congress - Tried and true ways to swaylawmakers

Gaining the ear of Congressional members isn't a problem for DC lobbyists. But, Thom Weidlich learns, if your hope is to prompt action, presentations must be short, relevant, and to the point.

Gaining the ear of Congressional members isn't a problem for DC lobbyists. But, Thom Weidlich learns, if your hope is to prompt action, presentations must be short, relevant, and to the point.

These days, the biggest problem with lobbying Congress could be access: Not coaxing a member to meet with you, but physically getting through the Capitol's security detail.

Lobbyists say that other than that situation, which is returning to normal, and the increased importance of public affairs, not much has changed in the way they go about their work.

Because meetings on the Hill - especially with members - are 15-30 minutes at most, you must think hard about who attends.

If you bring more than five or so, introductions alone will fill up the time. One exception is that it always helps to invite members of your industry who are also the legislator's constituents.

For example, Rita Lewis, a principal at Ketchum-owned Washington Group, currently works with real estate developers to pass legislation concerning reinsurance and terrorist attacks. "If Senator X gets a call from the airport manager saying 'We can't get reinsurance,'

she says, "and he also hears from the mayor and one of the state's biggest developers, it has a bigger impact. We're encouraging them to go to DC and meet with members of Congress, to e-mail them, to talk at town hall meetings."

Jerry Cerasale, SVP of government affairs for the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), says the number of issues raised in a meeting should also be limited - to two. "When we set up the meeting, we let the appointments person know what the issues are. That gives the senator or representative the ability to be briefed on the issue by staff, so they're more engaged."

During the meeting, you must make your points quickly. Jim Albertine, president of Alber-tine Enterprises in Washington, DC, and also current president of the American League of Lobbyists, says that often CEOs who understand their issues "blow it

because they deluge the lawmaker with information.

But how do you hone your message? "If you talk about, say, superconductivity,

says Albertine, "that's very complex. You must hit the most important points. Why is it important to you? (Because you have a company in your district.) Why is it important to the nation? (We need more electricity.) Why should the federal government get involved? (Because it's not commercially viable right now and we'll need some subsidies.) Don't go into ions and all that - in the first 10 seconds, you'll see the member's eyes glaze over."

Jamie Moeller, managing director of global public affairs for Ogilvy PR, suggests preparing for the face-to-face as you would a media interview.

"It's important to role-play these meetings to ensure the messages work."

Targeting a message to the individual legislator means targeting his or her interests. For example, the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) is pursuing legislation that would allow its members to have federal charters (insurance is state-regulated). Kim Dorgan, ACLI VP of federal relations, says that messages aimed at members from districts with large insurance companies will stress the importance of the issue to those businesses.

Conversely, messages to members on the finance committees will stress the importance of competition in the insurance industry.

Cerasale suggests personalizing the meeting. "If anyone has met the congressman or senator or knows someone who has, raise that to make it more friendly,

he says. "Because they'll do the same: 'Oh, you're from Jones-ville. Do you know so-and-so?' Members recall the visit more."

Perhaps the number-one rule is to be honest. Dealing with lawmakers is like dealing with journalists: pass along bad information and you'll never get a hearing from that writer - or Congress member - again. That includes always presenting the opposing view, which you will naturally rebut. "There's no such thing as perfect legislation that only affects people positively,

says MWW EVP Bob Sommer. "They expect you to be biased, but not intellectually dishonest."

For example, the current bugbear of the Independent Office Products and Furniture Dealers Association is a government corporation called Federal Prison Industries (FPI) from which federal agencies are required to shop first when buying office furniture. Proponents of the $550-million company, whose products use prison labor, say it aids in rehabbing convicts.

Paul Miller, the trade group's director of government affairs, realizes this, but stresses that FPI is providing prisoners with skills that won't lead to good jobs, and that it works with a manufacturer that doesn't even use prisoners.

As for supporting materials, lobbyists have their fabled "one-pager" outlining the issue and their position. Libertines say you can go a maximum of two pages. Miller says he always provides a list of member companies in the lawmaker's district. The Washington Group's Lewis says she sometimes uses charts - for example, she was putting one together to show how much a client's industry is taxed.

It's most vital to leave the meeting with a call to action: sponsoring of a bill, voting a certain way, sending a letter, speaking with another member, or asking a question during a committee hearing. "You need to get the member or the staff to agree to do something or tell you that they won't do something,

says MWW's Sommer. "'We'll see' is the answer you don't want."

Albertine tells of a group of "bare boaters

- yacht owners who rent out their vessels - who tried to fight regulation. After meeting with Congress members, they felt legislators were on their side. Instead, Albertine says, the bare boaters lost in the House 435-0. The lobbyist was able to get the measure knocked down by helping to defeat an appropriation bill in the Senate.

"The members were saying to them, 'We'll look into it, and you're making a good case,'

Albertine comments. "But there was no action item."

Finally, after the meeting, always send a thank you note. It may seem obvious, but Miller recalls a few years ago when he represented funeral directors and sent a one-paragraph thank you after meeting with Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA). Filner replied that he often doesn't get them.

TECHNIQUE TIPS

1 Do bring to the meeting lawmakers' constituents who have a stake in the issue. Constituents are sometimes the best lobbyists

2 Do try to hold meetings in members' districts to cut through the clutter of Washington meetings with lobbyists with national issues

3 Do always send a thank you note after the meeting

1 Don't go into too much detail. Work to decide what are the most important points to get across, and hammer at them early and often

2 Don't pretend that there's no other side to the story. Mention the opponents' views and rebut them

3 Don't bury the lawmaker and staff in paper. Stick to the one-pager.

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