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Home arrow Management arrow Strategic Management in the 21st Century. The Operational Environment


Where does one find an effective lobbyist? Good news, your company or association may have a good one already working for you. In smaller trade associations, the executive director will often have the lobbying experience and skills to represent your interests. Larger associations and corporations will often have one or more "governmental liaisons" or governmental relations specialists. These should be your first choices unless there is something out of the ordinary involved in your particular situation. Maybe, for example, this particular fight is sited in a governmental agency or legislative committee that your in-house lobbyist has never worked before. If that is the case, then you will probably need to seek out a lobbyist or lobbying firm who has experience in dealing with this decision-making site. Many of America's giant corporations and powerful trade associations have lots of in-house lobbying expertise; many have major lobbying firms or law firms on retainer in Washington, D.C.; and they still will go out and hire a specialist lobbyist or firm when necessary. Washington and many of the larger state capitals have small boutique lobbying firms that specialize in one particular issue area, such as energy law, or even one specific unit of government such as the House Agriculture Committee. A great advantage offered by these small firms is that a client will be only one of a small number of clients the firm must take care of. The big firms have dozens of clients and many of them may be paying much more than what you may want to spend. The big firms are big for a reason. They have a track record of success, lots of special contacts, many talented lobbyists, and great expertise in many of the strategies and tactics of a multifaceted lobbying campaign. Some firms or associations like being the big fish in a small pond and others love playing in the ocean.3

As Bertram Levine, a former lobbyist for Johnson & Johnson and now a professor of political science at Rutgers University, has said:

There is no official set of criteria for determining what is and what is not quality lobbying. It follows that there is no authoritative ranking system for the profession—no top to bottom list ranging from the best to the worst.4

It is important that the corporate or association leader designate someone to be the contact person between you and the lobbyist or lobbying firm.5 During any lobbying campaign, things may change very quickly and rapid decisions may often have to be made to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity or to avoid a potential setback. One decision that most do not like to think about is the decision "to pull the plug" on either a successful or unsuccessful lobbying campaign. Since such campaigns can cost as much as tens of thousands of dollars a month, it is a waste of money to keep a campaign running after you have won or lost. On the other hand, even if you won—this round—future dangers to your goals may lie in different venues. Some lobbying campaigns have had hundreds of battles in many different arenas over decades.


Let's assume for financial reasons you have decided to lobby for yourself. My strong recommendation is to find an experienced lobbyist who has knowledge of your lobbying topic and the governmental unit that will be making the decision. But, maybe your organization is a little strapped for money in its budget and has a governmental affairs department or an executive director that can manage the lobbying. That's fine, many corporations and associations have decided to do just that. You have a wide range of options open to you to help you achieve your goals, but let's do some background thinking first. Which institution or institutions of government have the power to achieve or block the policy decision you are concerned over? Know your target is the first major piece of intelligence you need. Since most of us are concerned about new laws or ordinances that impact our businesses, we might assume that our focus should be on the city council, county commission, state legislature, or even the Congress. Find out where the decision that affects you will be made and then focus on that institution. You might want to spend a little money up front to discuss with a lobbyist who has worked with that institution and is knowledgeable about the norms of behavior and expectations regarding lobbying and the members of the decision-making body. Make no mistake; there is often a great range of what is considered to be "the rules of the game," even among similar level units in the same state. Urban and rural, religious and secular, Republican or Democratic, and professional and amateur—each comes with a different set of informal rules regarding what is normal and what is "outside the norms." So before you do anything, make sure what you think you should do is acceptable.

As was mentioned previously, it is very important to designate one person as the lobbying coordinator for your corporation or association. The reason for this is to avoid multiple messages or lobbying efforts that may be confusing or worse, counterproductive. The key to good and often successful lobbying is staying on the message as much as possible and making sure that all the personnel involved in the message are trained and coordinated. If legislators hear multiple or conflicting messages, they start to get worried and often decide to avoid the issue as much as possible since it could be politically dangerous to them. One of the tasks performed by the coordinator is the collection of materials and information that will be useful in the campaign. This can include information from your own organization as well as from other similar organizations, as well as information about the legislators or bureaucrats you wish to lobby. You will also want to gather information from other organizations that may be lobbying the body since they may be potential coalition allies that may work together with you to help achieve your goal. Finally, you will want to explore what other states or governmental units have done on the same issue to see if you can strengthen your argument for action or learn what to fight against or just what to avoid. There is no sense of reinventing the wheel, if you can avoid it. The next step after the information is gathered is the packaging of it in forms that can be easily understood and effectively packaged. The refined information can be distributed in one-page handouts during one-on-one visits, on Websites, in mass media appeals, and in media interviews.

One extremely important set of rules involves the creation of access to the decision makers. Usually, the lower the level of government is, the easier is the access to the decision makers. City council and county commission members are usually pretty easy to approach and to communicate your interests to them. Up a level and depending on the state, the members of the state houses of representatives and senates may be accessible in small, rural states or really tough to meet in those states with so-called professional style bodies, such as California. I recommend the direct approach, don't send e-mails or letters, but try to set up face-to-face meetings. As you already know, e-mails get trashed very easily and the people you want to talk to may get hundreds of e-mails every day. The key to access to legislators in many cities and states is going to their office, talking with their secretaries, and setting up a short (and I mean short) meeting. These people are always busy. Even those who are not very busy, act like they are and so when asked the question, "How much time do you need?" the answer should always be, "Five to ten minutes would be fine." Actually, that is all the time you need. I know that your office has collected lots of information to support your position, but this is not the time to dump it on the legislator. You need a printed one-page summary. Yes, boil your entire argument down to a single page. It should identify the problem, note its seriousness, link it to the legislator by explaining its impact on his/her district or the state in general, and clearly state the action that you want done. If you want a bill introduced, indicate you already have a copy of the proposed bill. If you want an already introduced bill passed or killed, clearly identify that bill and indicate where it is in the legislative process. If the legislator is really interested, the meeting may last longer than a few minutes and he/she may ask you for additional information, which you can provide at a later time. Play it by ear and always respond to questions with honesty and in a positive manner. Never threaten! Statements such as "if you don't support this, we will get you!" are the kiss of death for your company unless you can carry out the threat. In reality, the tactic of burning bridges in the political game is rarely an effective path to follow. Even opponents on the specific bill you are concerned about this time may be potential allies in future lobbying campaigns or future years. Don't burn bridges!

After you have finished the meeting, take a few minutes and make some notes about who you saw and what you discussed. Be sure to write down if you were asked for additional information or any supporting action. Always follow up on any such requests. Be known as a reliable and responsible participant in the political decision-making process. The notes will help you remember the meeting and facilitate future meetings and maybe help you and your organization to decide if you want to get involved in the campaign finance part of lobbying and maybe even put together a political action committee (PAC) to provide for even easier access in the future.

Let's discuss the possible situation where access is not as easy as it may be at the local government level. Lobbying political decision makers is always easier if the interest has developed a personal relationship that facilitates the making of lobbying appointments easier. Over the years, a number of "access-creating activities" have been tried and tested. Access creation in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century usually was male dominated and involved smoke-filled rooms, alcohol, food, poker, and, sometimes, female companionship. By and large, those days are gone now. Today's access-creating techniques center on the offer of campaign support and campaign money and certain types of limited social activities. On the national level, major interest groups are constantly being asked to "buy a table" at some reception to "honor and support" a particular member of Congress. The implication is if you attend or "buy a table," you will have a much easier time meeting the congressman and making your case. Major interests also will make campaign contributions at key moments in a legislative or election cycle that may be even better at getting attention for your group. At the state level, some states, such as California, have very stringent laws on how much can be given to a candidate or even how much can be spent on a reception or other types of entertainment. The infamous Delay-Abramoff golf trips to Scotland in the 1990s resulted in many new rules on the federal level that limited the spending on such access-creating activities. Some states, such as Utah, have few such laws other than ones that may require the reporting of such expenditures, although Utah passed a new law in 2010 that prohibited campaign fund raising during the annual state legislative session from January to early March. Even the wild west of Utah political fund raising finally got some restrictions. This is an important point to remember: the rules change all the time and you want to be on the right side of these rules. You will want to be very clear about what the rules require or prohibit in your state. It is very embarrassing to be featured in the local newspaper as a violator of such laws. One basic informal rule is that specific lobbying does not happen at such events. If you invite a state legislator to a football game, performance of a symphony, or a dinner, enjoy the time together and discuss common general interests, but don't lobby. Formal lobbying occurs later. Don't worry, the good time you all spent together will not be forgotten.

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