How to Be Your Own Lobbyist
It often seems like nobody in government these days is listening to small business owners. But with a little bit of strategy, you can fight city hall. Expert Dr. Amy Handlin tells you how. Regulations, taxation, zoning, and other governmental rules can directly impact your business. When something arises that you think will harm your business, consider lobbying for change.
Here are some key strategies to adopt for effective lobbying. They are based on my interview with Dr. Amy Handlin, the deputy minority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly and author of Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government.
Make a plan
You can make a difference by lobbying effectively, especially in state and local matters. Don\'t be intimidated by the trappings of power. Instead, be determined to effect change. To do this, you need a plan.
- Find the appropriate office or person to meet with about your cause. Recognize jurisdictional boundaries: Your mayor can\'t change state law, while a state legislator can\'t fix sidewalks. Usually, you can find the right official or agency by following the money trail. Who collects the revenues related to your concerns? You can find this out by looking at documents that bear official stamps or seals, or signatures of officials.
- Do your research and get your facts together. Where necessary, make Freedom of Information requests to obtain key information. (Most government offices have their own form, which you can usually find online at the office\'s website.) Go to public meetings. Check media archives and blogs.
- Frame your issue, where possible, in terms beyond your own personal interests (even though that may be the motivation for lobbying). For example, if the town has proposed a construction project on your front steps, this will surely hurt your retail trade. However, if you present your objections on the basis of concerns about public safety, you\'re more likely to be heard (and have your complaint addressed).
- Make your communications clear and correct. Watch the spelling of names and get titles right. Include sources for any data you cite. Don\'t demand; persuade. Don\'t exaggerate facts and figures. Develop a message that resonates with many people and can be easily understood.
Initial efforts may not succeed. Don\'t waste time railing against the person who turned you down. Instead, try again using a different approach. Persistence pays off.
- Cultivate informal relationships with officials. Meet them at town events, for example, and introduce yourself. Meet officials at charitable events in which they participate. Develop relationships with the officials\' staff members.
- Build coalitions. Create a coalition of like-minded business people (there is power in numbers). Even without any formal group, try to demonstrate how your issue can impact a variety of people, businesses, government agencies, etc.
- Find receptive reporters and journalists who are interested in hearing about your issue. Give give them the information they need to convey urgency and get the public\'s attention. Even the most unresponsive official can be prodded into action by the right media message.
While many entrepreneurs pride themselves on their ability to multi-task, this doesn\'t work well for lobbying. Instead, take things one step at a time.
- Maximize each and every meeting you can arrange with the right official, committee, or other decision maker. Don\'t waste time being late, dropping names, or being unprepared. Never yell or threaten; you can\'t scare an official into helping you. Unprofessional behavior can bring your lobbyist days to a swift end.
- Work your way up the food chain. If you start at a committee level, for example, you can then proceed to the committee chairperson, or to an individual official.
- If you have the interest, ability, time, money, and family support, consider getting involved in politics yourself. This allows you to have a direct impact on issues of concern to you. But remember: Politics comes with hefty responsibility --- including listening to the concerns of other small business owners.