Twelve cardinal rules for connecting and motivating Congressional action

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Article originally featured on TheHill.com

By Mike Fulton and Joshua Habursky

We find it fascinating how many organizations break or ignore the cardinal rules for connecting with busy Congressional staff and motivating Congressional action on behalf of one’s organization. It sounds like common-sense Lobbying 101, but it turns out most groups want to make advocacy more difficult than it needs to be.

Our collective thinking was confirmed recently at an Association of Government Relations Professionals panel on best practices for communicating with Congress more effectively. Research conducted by the non-partisan, non-profit Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) headed by Bradford Fitch was instrumental.

The two of us have been in government or advocating at the state and federal level for more than 50 years, and we encourage our colleagues and newcomers to adhere to these cardinal rules:

1.) The Ask

On Capitol Hill the answer is almost always “yes.” It becomes the advocate’s job to raise the level of “yes” as high as possible. Many groups do not clearly articulate a call to action as they present their case.

2.) Knowing Committee Assignments

It turns out many people just get their itinerary on lobby day and pay no attention to the Committee assignments and jurisdiction of the Members of Congress they are visiting. This is a death knell with overworked Congressional staff who are seeing an average of six groups a day and trying to keep up in a dozen issue areas. It is also offensive to Congressional offices because this basic information is on their websites and in all Congressional directories.

3.) Set the Tone for a Congressional Meeting

Prior to your day on the Hill, mobilize your grassroots efforts to send email , post social media messages, and get your advocates to make calls to congressional offices to give staff and members a preview of the legislative action that you are seeking. Members of Congress and staff should not hear about your issue, cause, or “ask” for the first time during your in-person visit. Set the tone for a congressional meeting in the days leading up to your meeting so that you can speak more confidently about your topic knowing that the staff or members has heard recently from constituents and passionate advocates prior to your arrival.

4.) Pick Up the Phone and Call

Your iPhone does more than help you text and email. You can also make calls to Congressional decision-makers that allow for more of a connection and a better give-and-take. It is more effective to call sometimes, rather than rely on technology.

5.) Convey a Personal Story

People are most often swayed by other people, and personal stories greatly enhance the technical aspects of a complex issue. To communicate effectively, advocates must explain their issue and how it impacts real people. Storytelling and anecdotes are the best ways to do this.

6.) Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

Lobby day fly-ins bring hoards of people together in packs to approach each office, and members of Congress and Congressional aides have difficulty connecting personally with large groups that are often leaderless. Thin the herd and have a team leader manage the introductions and the dialogue for better results.

7.) The Golden Nugget

We all have our kryptonite likes and dislikes, and the more we know about the Members and staff we need to help us, the better the outcome. We encourage you to do your research, pay attention and be a good listener in your advocacy. Find that “golden nugget” that makes an elected official or senior staff person tick and that will open the path to success.

8.) Truth or Consequences

Many organizations make their pitch for a project or issue and, when asked, they cannot explain the potential consequences of the Member of Congress supporting their position or project. Members of Congress are more cautious than ever, for good reason, and they need to understand the ramifications in they offer an amendment, cosponsor legislation, appear at your event, etc. The ability to create win-win situations can win the day.

9.) Keep Your Friends Close, and your Enemies Closer

It is important that you know your organization’s issue inside-out, but it is more important to know the other side of the story. Members of Congress and their staff need to know all facets of an issue, who supports each side, consequences of inaction or action, and many other details. If you can share these critical elements, it will crystalize the issue and speed up potential support. Staff and members of Congress tell us often that the best lobbyists are those who know and can articulate the other side of an issue as well as their own.

10.) Not in Session Makes for Better Meetings in DC

Most lobbyists think the best meetings occur when Congress is in session. Not so, said Congressional aides in a CMF survey. They say more quality time is available without the pressure of watching Floor and Committee action.

11.) Being nice will get you farther on Capitol Hill

Professional conduct and best manners are noticed and appreciated. Lead with a smile and your best behavior, and go out of your way to treat everyone as if they are a decision-maker (because they are)!

12.) Say Thank You

When someone in government takes action on your behalf and your organization, please take the time to say thank you. Congressional aides relate that many people fail this simple courtesy and it catches up with them the next time they are in need.

Habursky is senior manager of Advocacy and Engagement at the American Diabetes Association and can be reached at jhabusky@diabetes.org. Fulton is director of public affairs and advocacy at the Asher Agency – mikef@asheragency.com or @hillrat1156. Both teach online communications courses for West Virginia University.

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