WASHINGTON DC - During the 115th Congress, from January 2017 to January 2019, over 13,000 pieces of legislation were introduced. So far during the 116th Congress, over 5,500 pieces of legislation have been introduced - and we’re not even halfway through this Congress.
If you do not have a presence in DC, how are you supposed to keep up with proposed laws and regulations that will directly impact your business operations? And how are you supposed to make your voice heard effectively, making sure it doesn’t get lost among the thousands of calls, emails, and letters that Senators, Representatives, regulatory officials, and their staffs receive each day? Pardon the cliché, but it really is true - in DC you have to have a seat at the table or you will be the one who is on the menu.
There might not be sharks in the Potomac River, but there are sharks on the shore - and trust me, you don’t want to be a shark’s dinner.
It might seem like the standard, easy way to get off the menu and get in front of decision makers is to hire a big name lobbying firm, but while that certainly can have its benefits it’s not the only avenue to successfully make yourself heard in DC.
For over two decades, I have been expertly navigating the challenges businesses face in DC. First, as an internal government affairs advisor for corporations during the auto industry restructuring and the financial crisis, and more recently as an external consultant at the helm of my own government affairs and public affairs firm. I’ve helped a diverse portfolio of corporate clients and trade associations successfully tell their stories, advocate for their interests, and I’ve seen pretty clearly what works and what does not work to get an elected official’s attention. I have also seen how businesses can miss out on important information and opportunities if they are not plugged in to the DC network.
Looking to improve your business’ presence in DC? I advise taking the following five steps: ID & improve your current presence, ID people that can be your eyes and ears, hone your elevator pitch, develop meaningful materials, and establish and maintain relationships.
Before you begin strategically establishing yourself in DC, you need to first analyze your footprint. Perhaps you already have a tangential presence in DC - maybe you belong to a trade group, or your local Chamber of Commerce is active in lobbying. However, membership in these groups alone isn’t going to get the job done for you. You should work to be an active member in order to be recognized within that organization, and making your voice that much louder when those organizations are advocating on issues important to your business. You can also add value within the coalition or trade group by serving as a subject matter expert on a key topic for your institution. Groups welcome real business world examples and anecdotes.
Go to local events; get to know the leadership of the group. Be active in replying to email inquiries asking for your input. Join the DC fly-ins that they put on to get you in front of elected officials and key staff.
Not a member of trade groups or other membership organizations with an advocacy presence in DC? You need to be. Only a member of one? Start researching – you will find others to join. These organizations are useful for getting information to you and can serve as your voice. They are also an excellent way to meet people and grow your network within your industry and with government officials.
It’s no secret that the most valuable currency in DC is information. To have an effective presence, your business needs to be able to tap into networks that can provide you with real-time updates that will keep you informed and able to advocate effectively and strategically for your interests.
External consultants are key to keeping you informed. Consultants earn a living through having an extensive network and developing relationships with people who are ‘in the know’ about all aspects of DC. From legislative staffers to regulatory officials to other consultants, they have contacts that span the city and they are always listening - and they know who to talk to when they need answers.
When you are researching external consultants, consider their unique areas of expertise. You need someone who speaks your language. A consultant with inroads in your specific industry or in your specific geographic region will serve as a good resource for you. Even if you have extensive contacts, it is still important to have someone you trust on the ground to represent your interests at a moment’s notice.
As you begin making inroads in DC and speaking up on issues, you must make sure that every minute you spend communicating about an issue is impactful. Legislative staffers in particular are juggling dozens of issues every day and your company will easily get lost in the shuffle if your messaging is long, complex, or just boring. Whether you are trying to get a meeting with a decision maker, or just want to let them know your opinion on an issue, you will have to get and keep the attention of staff. Continually read your audience. You should never insult staff and if you notice the official is yawning that is a good time to refocus the conversation - or wrap it up. Boring a staffer to sleep might make them remember you, but you’ll be a happy hour story - not a top issue brought to their boss.
What’s the secret to getting them to stay awake and pay attention to you and your issue? Anecdotes.
Plain and simple, lawmakers are going to listen to stories about the people in their districts. Is an issue going to affect how your employees are able to afford to send their kids to college? Affect someone’s medication cost? Affect your ability to give out raises next year? Tell the story in your elevator pitch, and put names and towns with the stories. Make it relatable - and keep it short.
You might be a businessperson, knee-deep in numbers all day, but data alone isn’t going to immediately connect with a staffer the way a story about an actual person will. Put a story with the data, keep it to five minutes or less, and your elevator pitch will be more likely to get the attention of the people you need to impress.
Once you have your general messaging and your elevator pitch developed, create collateral that gets your message out there. Attractive, informative printed or digital materials that you can send to or leave with staffers make a big impression and serve as a reminder of your company and your areas of interest long after you have met with them.
Your external consultant can be a valuable resource both in helping craft your elevator pitch and creating meaningful materials to share your message and get your name in front of decision-makers. They will know the pressure points to hit and the messaging strategies that will resonate with the people you must meet.
When I say create meaningful materials, I do not mean lengthy PowerPoint presentations for meetings or wordy dissertations sent via email. I mean one-pagers, visually impactful brochures...items that can be handed out at meetings or sent to a staffer as a supplement to a longer letter or email. Use anecdotes and graphics to illustrate data and make it understandable and impactful. Of course if they ask for more information by all means prepare and send additional materials in a timely and responsive manner.
No matter how carefully crafted your message and materials are, how big your business, or how experienced your external consultant, you won’t get far without actual relationships. Before you start calling and emailing people to ask for information, you need to develop a strategic approach to cultivate relationships.
When you attend events with a trade group, send follow-up notes to staffers you may have met or to other industry people. And remember, DC is a transactional place – please do not expect to be given information or helped out if you are not also willing to do the same. Maintain your integrity at all times and staff will know you can serve as a trusted resource.
Though there may not be a major issue that impacts your business being considered now or even on the immediate horizon, there will be. When you need information or action, you want to be sure to have those crucial relationships in place so you can pick up the phone and know it will be answered. Do not put yourself in a position of having to call someone you met five years ago but never spoke with again - and now you desperately need their help.
The time invested in establishing and maintaining relationships in DC will never be wasted. And don’t just focus on the people currently in power. “Stay in with the outs” is a line I was told by a mentor of mine and always remember. You never know who might win an election in two years, or which staffer might move to which office or agency. Trust me, when new regulatory rules are proposed for your industry you will be glad you took that 3 minutes to write an email a few months ago after meeting someone quickly at an event.
Do not allow yourself to be left out of the conversations and the decision-making. Get involved, build relationships, and begin advocating. If you want your interests to be protected, you must design and implement a plan to establish a presence for your organization in DC.
Michele E. Lieber has served as a direct report and strategic adviser to four corporate CEO’s. Ms. Lieber served as Chief Public Policy Officer at Ally Financial Inc. from March 2011 until August, 2017. At Ally Financial, Ms. Lieber oversaw federal and state government relations strategies, managed congressional inquiries, and works with key trade associations and coalitions.
Ms. Lieber joined Ally Financial in August 2005 as Vice President of Government Relations. In this role, she oversaw all of Ally’s government relations activities and public policy issues, as well as ensuring their integration within Ally’s business operations.
Ms. Lieber has also previously served as Director of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs and Financial Services for General Motors Corporation (GM), Assistant Vice President at Zurich Financial Services, and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.
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