To most business owners, lobbying means election support for the politicians that will best represent your interests on a local, state or federal level. When the voting is over, it's time to leave politics behind and focus on year-end company issues and future plans for success.
And that's absolutely wrong. The post-elections period presents an ideal window to get to know your representatives – and have them get to know you. That's especially true following 2010's anger-fueled wave that either voted in many new politicians or made incumbents sit up and take notice.
"When elections are over, lobbying begins," says Dr. Amy Handlin, a New Jersey state assemblywoman and associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University. "Politicians may be listening more intently than they will again for a long time to come. And because of the enormous changes wrought a couple of weeks ago, I think it's more obvious than ever that small businesses are the engine of the American economy." Handlin knows the obstacles -- real and imagined -- that prevent business owners from lobbying. To help them, she wrote the book Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Governments.
Comprehending the complex byways of government is a key part of lobbying. But as Handlin and others point out, the most fundamental aspect is empowerment. That means believing you can do it and then getting started. Here are some first-time tips for working with politicians.
1. Know that you're important and why.
You are important because politicians are especially sensitive to voters right now. But also because most small businesses don't lobby, the ones that do so have extra clout. Just a few companies weighing in on an issue can sway a vote, says Will Newton, Texas state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). "Politicians can't be experts in every field," says Newton, who worked for 15 years in the Texas state house and senate prior to joining the NFIB. "They need the expertise and input from back home. I can't count the number of times a senator or representative would say 'I've got a vote, what do small business owners think?'"
2. Understand that time spent now is time saved later.
To the refrain that lobbying takes too much time, consider this: at some point, you'll confront a regulation or tax law or issue that requires contacting the government. If you don't know anyone or how things work, you'll waste days, weeks and even months.
ReShonda Young can confirm this wisdom first-hand. She is operations manager for Alpha Express Inc., started by her father 21 years ago in Waterloo, Iowa. Raised in a politically active environment, her first step after joining the family business was a local Chamber of Commerce membership just to sit in on meetings and start to learn the issues. It was an invaluable start. "You don't have time not to be politically involved," says Young. "If we didn't fight against certain things, it would have had an impact on our bottom line. Yes, you are ridiculously busy and have a lot of things to juggle, but the laws that are passed have such a direct impact on our business and our people."
For years, Alpha Express struggled to find affordable employee health insurance coverage. A frustrated Young joined The Main Street Alliance, a national group of small business owners, and wound up testifying before Congress on health care reform. She says small business input resulted in better offers from insurers even before President Barack Obama signed the bill into law last March. "Our old monthly rates averaged $414 individual and just under $1,000 per family," she says. "Now, they're $238 a month individual and $556 for families. Employees considered health risks no longer are excluded."
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3. Introduce yourself before politicians get busy.
Federal and state legislatures don't convene until the start of next year, so most elected officials are in home districts during November and December. Call a politician's office and ask for a schedule of meet-and-greet opportunities or, if you are comfortable with one-on-one situations, request a half-hour meeting. Lay the groundwork for any face-to-face encounter by familiarizing yourself with his or her positions and focusing on the one or two issues – never more – you'd like to discuss.
What if you're heated up over a law? "I tell our members that you have to understand politicians have a lot of interest groups pulling at them and it helps to be constructive," says Newton. "If a vote went against your interest, offer an amendment to make the law a little less onerous." Above all, "You have to be truthful and honest about an issue even if it hurts you, because you need to establish trust."
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4. Join groups that do lobbying.
Virtually all the experts agree that a business owner should join (a) an industry-specific trade association and (b) a larger umbrella organization with a small-business division. That said, not every owner is aware of the services such groups provide.
In Texas, for instance, the NFIB holds a small business day shortly after the state legislature convenes. For $50, attendees get breakfast, lunch, two keynote speeches from top state officials and an afternoon open house. "All the members of the state legislature wait in their offices for visits from any business owners from their districts," says Newton. The NFIB will shepherd individuals to an office and even offers advance-prepping sessions to shy members.
Some owners are reluctant to join groups because they don't agree with its general politics. But there's a broader range than you might think, from the traditionalist U.S. Chamber of Commerce to The Main Street Alliance, which is headquartered in Seattle, and describes itself as progressive. "It turned out there were a lot of things the (U.S.) Chamber promotes that we couldn't concur in," says Young, whose family now belongs exclusively to the Alliance, where Young serves on the executive committee.
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5. Lobby politicians through your own network.
In her book, Handlin explores how to form an alliance of like-minded people from your political district. "If the nature of your issue is such that it affects others as well, amplify that with the megaphone of a coalition," says Handlin. Such a coalition needn't consist exclusively of other business owners; if you've done a good job of building a loyal customer following, enlist them in your cause. Adept use of your website and social media can help as well.
In her book, Handlin cites the example of a tiny cupcake bakery in Salt Lake City, Utah. Just before opening, the owner got notice that she'd have to install a $40,000 grease trap in a manhole on the street. "That $40,000 was more than she had in her entire bank account," says Handlin. The owner rallied help from a coalition of small businesses. They met with officials and ultimately secured an affordable solution for the owner – she was able to install a far less expensive grease trap in her kitchen that still met the city's public health obligations.
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6. Lobby politicians through the official media.
The experts recommend your first effort should be an old-fashioned letter to the editor. "I think letters to the editor are really important," says Young. "What owners may not realize is that the political staffs of every politician get and read the papers every day and a well-crafted letter can really stand out. It can start to move things around."
Telling the truth and being balanced is key. "We don't want our members to call up and pitch fits, but we do encourage letters and we will even help them with talking points, etc.," says Newton. "If there's an issue that's hot and heavy, we'll call legislators and usually be able to get you an audience pretty quickly.
If all that fails and you feel a need to amp up attention, evaluate your cause and proceed with caution. Recognize the difference between an individual issue – say, a zoning variance just for your business – and one that's compelling enough to command media attention, like a pattern of favoritism or corruption. However you lobby through the media, it should be carefully, judiciously and honestly executed.
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7. How to lobby higher-up politicians.
Usually, your easiest path to lobbying a political representative lies through local and state corridors, where most decisions affecting your business are made. But occasionally, you need to be heard at the federal level. For that, the best way to reach higher-level politicians often is through his or her trusted staff. When you call, explain your problem and learn the name of the legislative aide that handles such issues.
"Every single federal official has multiple district offices staffed by taxpayer money and staffs that are well-versed in such issues as small business," says Handlin. "They are paid to be accessible to you and they have an enormous amount of influence with their bosses. And that's a very good use of your time."
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