As winter turns to spring, it’s time again for SPJ to embark on its annual Capitol Hill visit, when leaders of our organization meet with staff people from key members of Congress and, often, important departments of the federal government.
Last year, we began our Washington visit with a conversation with Beryl Howell, who had recently left the staff of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to enter the private sector. Beryl (along with Leahy) was one of SPJ’s best friends on Capitol Hill, especially on Freedom of Information issues.
We knew she had the ear of Leahy and, because of her boss’s prominence in the Senate, could get things done.
For those reasons, among others, SPJ named her as the 2004 recipient of our First Amendment Award.
Beryl’s presentation to the SPJ group in March 2004 was, essentially, a primer on how to lobby Congress effectively. It really is more than that, however. It’s a concise guide on how to approach any decision-making body, whether it’s your state legislature, your county commissioners or your city council.
1. BE PREPARED
If you’re going to speak about specific legislation, know the specific number and basic information about the bill in question. Have your rationale summarized and ready. Prepare a “one pager” – a single printed page that includes all your main points – that can be used as a handout.
2. KNOW YOUR LEGISLATOR
What is this person’s background? What’s important to him or her? Does your issue relate to this person’s political or personal agenda? Does someone in your group have a link to the legislator, either as a constituent or through professional contact? Is the legislator in a leadership position?
3. TELL A GOOD STORY
Don’t just explain your philosophical or political position. Do what journalists do – tell a story. Show your legislator a problem, something that’s “not right” that affects real people. Share examples and anecdotes of people affected by the issue. Then, once you’ve put a human face on the problem, explain how your legislator can correct it.
4. ALWAYS FOLLOW UP
Once you’re back home (or back at the office), send more detailed information, along with a note of thanks for the meeting. Such courtesies get noticed and are remembered by those you visit, perhaps to your benefit later on.
5. PERFECTION IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD
This can be a hard concept to understand and embrace. Many times in life we are encouraged to go for it all and be unwilling to compromise. However, people rarely respond well to an ultimatum. The legislative branch especially is the place where compromise takes place, where ideas are softened, morphed and changed to reach something closer to consensus. In Beryl’s words, “Those who want it all make it hard to get anything done.” So, answer this question: “What is realistic for you to achieve if you can’t get what you want?”
6. DON’T DEMAND DECISIONS ON THE SPOT
Certainly there are times when you can legitimately ask a decision-maker for a commitment. But when dealing with Congress (and perhaps with other decision-making bodies as well) you may not be talking to the person who actually makes the decision. Respect that and don’t demand the person make a commitment he or she can’t make. However, it is reasonable to ask when a decision might be made and to plan for follow-up contacts.
7. THE HILL LOVES A CROWD
There is strength in numbers, and lawmakers know it. Well before scheduling a visit with your legislator, ask yourself, “Who else might be interested in this issue?” If you can identify other groups or interested parties, contact them before your visit. Get them onboard and let your legislator know you’re not alone in your interest. (NOTE: bringing in other groups may raise other questions. Are your goals and those of your allies compatible in other areas? How comfortable are you with sharing a position? Can you get a letter of support from your allies?)
8. CUSTOMER SERVICE
Be on time. Be courteous. If you don’t know something, admit it. Offer to send more information, then do it as part of your follow-up. Be willing to create your own “to do” list if it will help the lawmaker understand the issue and your position. Whatever you offer to do, be sure you do it.
9. BE REALISTIC ABOUT THE
This ties in with both No. 2 and No. 6. Understand what the person actually can do for you. Just because the person is friendly toward your issue doesn’t mean he or she has the power to fulfill your request. If the legislator has little seniority or is in the political minority, offer to help find a co-sponsor who can help move your idea along.
10. BUILD RELATIONS THAT CAN GO BOTH WAYS
This can be a tricky area for journalists, who cannot offer quid pro quo with lawmakers. Nonetheless, there are things you can do for your legislator that do not require a promise or force you into questionable ethical territory. For SPJ members, they include:
* Mentioning your contact – and any help you received from your legislator – in chapter newsletters or other internal publications. Make sure to send a copy to the legislator’s media relations person.
* Encouraging other people to write letters of support or thanks to the legislator. (On a national issue, this may require the extra step of contacting fellow journalists in the member’s home state.)
* Writing an opinion piece – or a letter to the editor – for publication in your local newspaper. If it’s appropriate, encourage an editorial discussing the issue and the legislator’s help with it.