I just finished an exhausting, but incredibly productive, day on Capitol Hill this week with a novice but passionate group of professionals affiliated with a leading nonprofit health care organization.
They were executing their inaugural “Day on Capitol Hill,” and they hired me to set up meetings, plan a bipartisan briefing over lunch with a senator an
d prepare their “constituent advocates” to be comfortable with the messages and logistics of House and Senate protocol.
The client asked me to put together a list of the best practices in advocacy and to present it to the 62 staff and volunteers who agreed to spend the day lobbying for a worthy cause. I had given this same presentation many times over the years, and the timeless dos and don’ts are essential for both advocacy veterans and beginners.
- Bring business cards — they are the currency of Capitol Hill.
- Be on time. We all love to talk and you need to observe the five-minute rule of being early or late.
- Accept that there can be changes in who we meet with; surprises are a given!
- Be prepared for the member of Congress to walk by and join the meeting. I cannot tell you how many times clients have been on their phone or reading, and the representative or senator has scooted by them (a missed opportunity).
- Have a chief spokesman who leads and guides each meeting.
- Have three key messages in your presentation. Let experts or those who know the most tell each story.
- Tell the most important things first, and emphasize the call to action or “ask.”
- Offer short, impactful stories and anecdotes to make your points that back up each key message.
- Gently ask if the senator or representative is likely to help with the “ask.”
- Know the answer is usually “yes,” but it matters greatly what level of “yes” you are able to secure in each meeting.
- Take pictures in a respectful way. It is appropriate to ask permission first — most offices like tweets or Facebook posts about their responsiveness.
- Complete an evaluation after every meeting so your organization can gauge the effectiveness of our visits and follow up appropriately.
- Last, but not least, wear comfortable shoes (and your FitBit) as there is a great deal of walking between meetings.
- Make assumptions about who does what in a congressional office. I have seen clients brush off the chief of staff and spend far too much time with the staff assistant.
- Leave the sound on your iPhone on, or use it during a meeting.
- Let the noise and hustle bustle in the smaller congressional offices distract you.
- Interrupt a member of Congress or staff person, let alone someone in your group.
- Rustle your papers and read from your notes verbatim.
- Answer questions that you do not know the answer to. It is OK to say, “I will research that and get back to you.”
- Look at the clock on the wall or your wristwatch, as if you are bored.
My group exceeded all expectations, and I appreciated that they listened and learned from a former Capitol Hill aide who still remembers how I liked to be treated when constituents or advocates visited.
While most of my work is at the federal level in Congress, these tips are applicable in state capitals as well.
Those of us who represent clients seeking government action know “constituents come first,” and their active engagement during in-person meetings and other communications is the most effective way to convey our point of view. That is why we need to help them understand the proper rules of engagement.
Guest blogger Michael Fulton is director of public affairs and advocacy for the Asher Agency in Washington, D.C. He teaches public affairs in the WVU Reed College of Media’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. Email: email@example.com.