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Taking your legislative issue to market.

Build your lobbying strategy with these marketing tools.

Your small association may become embroiled in a tax issue now escalating from a local question to a statewide debate. Or perhaps you are the new chief executive officer or government relations director and need a strategy to help you learn the art of lobbying. Whatever your issue or agenda, you must persuade your state (or federal) policymakers to take a particular action--that's all lobbying is.

Whether you plan to tackle a single issue or map out a full scheme of association legislative policy, one way to ensure success while using your association's limited resources to best advantage is to treat your lobbying campaign as a marketing campaign. A successful lobbying campaign involves the same type of planning, preparation, and implementation as a campaign to take any sort of product to market. Let's walk through the fundamental steps of developing a marketing plan for your association's lobbying agenda.

Identifying the issue

The first step in any marketing plan is to identify the product or service you want to sell. Identification is the first step with a lobbying campaign as well, but the goal is to sell your solution to a pending issue rather than sell a product.

At first glance, identifying the issue may seem simple. After all, the members of your association are surrounded by problems that need solving. That, in fact, is your problem. There are too many problems to solve and not enough resources to go around.

To conduct a successful lobbying campaign, you must focus resources on the issue or issues that are most important to your members. Scattering the association's efforts will reduce the likelihood of success on any one issue.

For example, if a bill to require state licensing of your members' businesses is your highest priority, why spend your association's limited resources on other issues, such as an increase in sales tax, workers' compensation reform, or an official all-industry day?

How do you determine which issue is most important to members? Listen to them. At every meeting and social event, members talk to each other about the problems they are facing. Listen to your members carefully and ask them which issues are most pressing, why, and what ideas they have for solving them.

You also can take the more formal approach of conducting a survey. At the American Subcontractors Association (ASA), Alexandria, Virginia, we conduct an annual issues survey to determine member priorities. ASA's government relations committee reviews survey results and recommends legislative priorities to the board for the next year.

In addition to determining the highest-priority issue, you also have to estimate its chances of success. Don't waste association resources on an issue you have no chance of winning.

ASA's criteria include the following:

* the degree of member commitment--if members won't write letters, the issue isn't important to them;

* whether ASA staff and members have the skill and knowledge to carry out our plan;

* the strength and skill of any allies and of the opposition; and

* the general political climate.

Your lobbyist or a politically savvy member can help you evaluate your situation candidly.

Study the issue's history

Before you launch a lobbying campaign, you must know the history of your issue. Has it been studied or debated in previous years? If so, what happened? Which legislators supported or opposed the issue? Are they still around? Which individuals and other organized interests were involved?

Has another state or region addressed the issue? Did similar legislation pass, and was its implementation successful? Which public interest groups were involved with its passage?

You may already have many answers if you've been following your issue for some time. In general, though, the public library is a great resource, especially if it indexes a major newspaper in your state.

Every legislative body has an agency devoted to research; it usually has the word research or reference in its name. Start your search for information with staff members there. If they don't have an appropriate expert on staff, ask them to direct you to one.

If you're affiliated with a national association, that may be the best place to start. Your national association should be able to tell you what has and hasn't worked in other states and can put you in contact with members in other states who have lobbied on the same issue. National associations of state legislators--such as the National Conference of State Legislators, Denver, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, Washington, D.C., also may be able to help you find out what action other states have taken on your issue.

Gather information

Of course, getting the history is just one step. You also need to research any technical aspects and related arguments pro and con. Compile the data that prove your case on the issue.

Information is key. One association lobbyist recently said, "The way to win in Washington is to present interesting anecdotes backed up with sound statistics." It works at the state and local levels, too. After trying many recipes, we've concluded that the two principal ingredients in the lobbying campaign information portfolio are statistics and anecdotes.

Statistics are data appropriately organized to present significant information about your issue. You may be able to compile your statistics from existing public information. Alternatively, you may have to conduct or commission a survey. The statistics you gather should describe the problem and show whether or not your proposal offers a solution.

An anecdote is a short, entertaining account of some event, usually personal. We make a point to collect these stories from members. For the sake of credibility, maintain a system for identifying, verifying, and tracking anecdotes. A simple notebook or computer file is easy to organize by legislative district. Use this information to illustrate the problem you are trying to solve and to add a human dimension to your presentation.

Here's how it works at ASA: One of our key issues is ensuring that state prompt-payment laws cover construction subcontractors. Before initiating a legislative campaign in a state, the association routinely surveys payment practices.

The survey results demonstrate whether slow pay is a problem, the extent of the problem, the harm it does to subcontractors, and the harm it does to the government owner. ASA also tracks incidents of slow payment and writes short case studies on how this situation affects the subcontracting firm involved. We compile these case studies by legislative district and make them available to legislators and the media.

Determine your markets

Once you have identified your issue and its history, it's time to determine to whom you must sell your position; that is, it's time to determine your markets. Your most obvious buyers are the policymakers whose decisions you want to influence. Find out who they are and research their political backgrounds and voting records on issues similar to yours. What issues are important to these key policymakers, and what or who influences their decisions?

Where can you get this kind of information? At the federal level, dozens of books describe the background of each member of Congress. At the state level, the secretary of state can provide much of it. Don't forget the library and organizations like the League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce, among others. You also may want to seek information from anyone you know who deals with legislators, such as lobbyists and legislative staff members.

The information you gather about the key decision makers on your issue will help you pinpoint other markets. If your legislator toes the party line, you may want to work through party leaders. If he or she craves media coverage, arrange for press recognition of his or her stand on your issue.

If a legislator has close ties with another public interest group, try to get his or her attention through a member of that group. You might even recruit that group to join the coalition supporting your issue.

Develop sales tools

Your issue is meaningless without a way to communicate the association's position to identified markets. You need sales tools.

If your issue involves an association initiative, the primary tool is a bill or amendment for which you will seek a legislative sponsor. Bill language should be simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, that is not always possible, particularly when amending an existing statute.

Too many associations begin and end marketing-material development with their written bill. Whether you pursue your own initiative or try to defeat someone else's, other tools to develop include a concise one- or two-page fact sheet and a section-by-section analysis of the legislation.

Depending on available resources, consider developing

* a media kit;

* a pamphlet that makes your association's case using statistics you develop;

* case studies using anecdotes you compile; and

* a videotape discussing the problem and your proposed solution.

Use these materials to inform legislators, potential allies, and the public of your existence and position.

Test market your product

Depending on the complexity of the issue and the extent of your resources, the first few steps may take a few weeks or even a year or more. Once you have identified the issue and developed (or at least planned to develop) marketing tools, it is time to test market your product. It is particularly important to talk to potential coalition members and likely legislative sponsors.

Keep in mind that it's often difficult to foresee every impact a proposed bill may have. ASA's Florida chapter discovered recently that language drafted for legislation to ensure prompt payment would have almost the opposite effect.

Have representatives of each of your markets review the association's proposed bill and supporting materials. Be sure they not only support your objectives but do no unintended harm to any other group. Otherwise, you might end up with unexpected opposition.

Every interest group you approach will have a different perspective on the issue. Consider each suggestion. Will it solve the issue you are trying to address while making your bill more passable? If so, modify your bill and supporting materials. If you think it won't, explain your reasoning and try to persuade the group to work with you nonetheless. At ASA, we may test market our proposed bill a second time if feedback results in major changes.

In any event, don't develop too much pride in authorship. Like shampoo or dog food, your product may need periodic improvement before it sells.

Develop a sales plan

The test-marketing process will also give you an idea about how public or private the association's sales efforts should be.

If your issue is controversial, very limited in scope, or might have negative consequences for another group, consider keeping a low profile. Don't send out news releases or publish stories in your newsletter. Consider asking your legislative sponsor whether it's possible to add your piece to another bill and to press for speedy passage.

Lobbying is personal. All your research and preparation comes down to conversations among you, your lobbyist, your members, and legislators who are interested in your issue.

Train your sales team

The final ingredient in your marketing plan is your membership. Grass roots is more than a buzzword in today's extremely competitive political arena. It is a necessity. High speed, high-tech communication systems have shown that constituents' opinions really matter.

It doesn't matter how much constituent support and interest you have unless you can prove it, though. That's where a grass-roots network comes in.

It is your job to educate members about the issue and what the association is doing about it. Don't assume that because the association's government relations committee or board of directors selected the issue and helped develop the lobbying plan, the rest of the association's members are committed to its implementation. You must create interest and build commitment by telling people why they should care and how they can help.

If you merely talk about your issue or throw it on the legislative table, you're almost certain to lose--and you will deserve to.

If you carefully prepare and implement your marketing campaign and manage to avoid the pitfalls of the legislative process, you'll win more than your share of legislative battles.

Rules of the Road

With a marketing plan and sales team in place, you're ready to go. Here are eight fundamental rules to help you avoid the most common pitfalls of lobbying.

1. Never tell a legislator you're smarter than he or she is. It's quite likely that a legislator is not as informed on the issue as you are. Your job is to educate the legislator in a forthright manner. Don't orate, lecture, or preach.

2. Develop your program in advance. If you can anticipate a problem and start talking about it right away, you can define and limit the legislative debate. That's what your marketing plan is all about.

3. Don't get divided--there is strength in unity. This is one of many reasons it's important to keep your members informed about the issue and what you are doing about it. This also is the reason to be careful about whom you invite to participate in your coalition.

4. Lobby at home. Going to the state capital can be important, but the most effective lobbying is done in the legislator's district. Visit legislators in their law offices, pharmacies, or farms. At least there they won't be distracted by a committee meeting or an emergency appointment with the governor.

5. Get other people and groups involved. Today is the era of coalitions. Find out who else your issue might affect and get them involved.

6. Trust your lobbyist. Your lobbyist must have the flexibility to negotiate during the push and tug of the legislative process. Make sure he or she knows in advance which parts of your proposal you can concede and which you can't. Don't tie the lobbyist's hands too tightly, though.

7. Keep informed. The legislative process frequently moves very quickly, particularly at the state and local levels. It's sometimes nearly impossible to keep up with amendments, refinements, compromises, and so on. Make sure you check with your lobbyist before you write a legislative update or visit a legislator.

8. Stroke your legislators. Remember, above all, legislators almost always want to be re-elected. It's important to them to be recognized for their efforts. Give awards, hold thank-you receptions, mention them in articles, have them write for you, and invite them to speak to your association. Check the lobbying and disclosure laws that apply before you present a gift or reimburse a legislator for services such as a speech.

Insights Into Lobbying Law

Trying to find your way through the thicket of complex federal lobbying requirements? The Federal Lobbying Law Handbook, Second Edition, by Jerry Jacobs, can help you find your way. In addition to covering the Clinton administration's new ethics pledges, the revised guidebook discusses such issues as registration as a lobbyist and lobbying of federal officials.

The 352-page hardcover guidebook, $96 for ASAE members and $134 for nonmembers, is available from ASAE's Association Management Press, (202) 626-2748.

ASAE is developing more educational materials to help associations handle the requirements of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which renders nondeductible those member dues that go toward lobbying expenditures. For information about OBRA '93, call ASAE Government Affairs, (202) 626-2703.

E. Colette Nelson is executive director of the American Subcontractors Association, Alexandria, Virginia. Michael P. O'Brien is director, state and local government affairs, at the National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Government Relations; includes related articles; lobbying for business issues
Author:O'Brien, Michael P.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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