“If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” Though often attributed to former President Harry Truman, U.S. Senator Nancy Kassenbaum is the first person on record to offer this advice. Mike Bober, of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, believes associations wanting to find friends among those in government should also follow these four Fs of building effective relationships with lawmakers:
How do you and your members break through to elected officials and their staff, especially in a world where information is available everywhere, all the time?
How can you ensure your virtual meeting or phone call will have the same impact as meeting in person, where you can more easily read nonverbal cues?
Four Fs of Building Effective Relationships
- Face: Effective communications with lawmakers and their staffs start with a personal presence. Who you are and how you present yourself, as a representative of your organization, means everything when trying to influence a lawmaker. In our current world of always available, always on information, find a way to uniquely connect with legislators and their staff. Be the face of the issue you’re advocating about. Think through the kind of image you want to project: Is it that of an expert? A constituent? Make sure everyone your association includes in a legislative meeting brings that same energy.
- Facts: Study after study shows that providing verifiable, quantifiable info in a way that is easily digested is important to influencing someone to see an issue the way you do. Infographics are a good way to present important info in an easily referable way. Facts MUST be verifiable. Don’t share something as a fact unless you have the data to back it up!
- Focus: Keep your meetings with lawmakers focused on a specific topic. Pare down your meeting agenda to two, or at most three, points. Legislators meet with dozens or people a day; they will not remember a seven-point agenda, especially if those points are crammed into a 30-minute meeting. Your position will be heard and – more importantly – remembered if you keep it tightly focused.
- Follow-up – Thank the lawmaker for their time, re-share any materials you gave them, and offer opportunities for further discussion if the lawmaker wants more information. Following up puts you in a better position to establish a recurring meeting relationship with the lawmaker.
Additional Tips for Building Legislative Relationships
When it comes to connecting in the COVID era, fly-ins are out. Conference calls and video chats are in. It’s worth your time to prepare video-friendly conversations and materials, and to practice a phone or video call with your team in advance of meeting with legislators. Legislators do not have a lot of free time, and while some are charitable when it comes to technology or user-error hiccups, no one likes having their time wasted. Rehearse your meeting beforehand. Log on to your video or call platform, run through your agenda with your team, and practice asking questions and speaking into a mic. You will not get another chance to make a good first impression with your legislators!
Go in with prepared materials. PIJAC helps prepare members by publishing and distributing an Advocacy and Communications Guide that includes essentials for a successful meeting with your lawmaker. Members learn how to form a clear “ask,” how to research their position, and what to expect in a response from the lawmaker.
While there’s never a bad time to share good news, be careful to not have too many “check-in” meetings right now. But definitely share good news! Ask, via email, for a meeting. Even if they say no, you’ll still have shared how your industry is progressing. Or they’ll know your position.
The first person who brings up an issue usually gets to frame the discussion. So if you and your association feel the need to speak up about an industry-related issue that concerns you, do it first. Don’t wait for an organization or influencer on the other side of the issue to speak up. You’ll find yourself in a reactive, defensive position that is hard to dig out from.
But should your association always be the one to bringing up issues? No. Rely on your ally network, and encourage them to use their own voice to advocate for mutual goals. Help each other speak up, but don’t rely upon pre-filled petitions or form letters to change lawmakers’ minds. Instead, encourage members to tell their personal stories and backgrounds. Well-written or spoken first-person accounts backed by verifiable data make much more of an impact on lawmakers than copies of the same statement.
The four Fs above will often position your association on a path Mike calls the four Ps: Plan, prepare, persevere. That gives you the best chance to prevail!