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Top 3 ways to make a difference in Washington, D.C. and beyond

By Stephanie Vance

From taxes to LIFO inventory practices to small business regulations, government officials at all levels impact the work of electrical distributors and manufacturers.  Unfortunately, policymakers don’t always know what’s helpful (and what’s harmful) when drafting bills and writing rules. They need your insights to help them understand how these policies play out in the real world. 

Believe it or not, citizens have a great deal of power, particularly in an election year. Studies show that in-person visits from constituents influence legislators more than anything else—even more than lobbyists. You need to know how to speak effectively to not only be heard, but to be agreed with.  Here’s how:

Number one: Know what you want

What’s the number one reason you don’t get a sale? You don’t ask for it. It’s the same for the political world, where there are essentially two kinds of asks: policy and relationship-building. Policy asks are oriented around specific legislative or government initiatives such as asking to retain LIFO rules or to eliminate the death tax. Relationship-building asks are things you ask for to get them engaged, such as a visit to a facility in the district.  These relationship-building asks help you build trust with legislators, which makes it far more likely that they will agree with you in the future.  The National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) is a perfect resource for finding out more about both policy and relationship-building asks. Specific policy asks for NAED’s Congressional Fly-In will reflect the current political action (or lack thereof) on Capitol Hill and participants are fully briefed before walking in the door.

Number two:  Know your audience

To be effective, you’ll want to know what gets your audience up in the morning and what keeps them up at night.  What gets them up is usually a policy interest they love. What keeps them up is usually reelection.  You can connect to these concerns by knowing two important things: first, who represents the areas in which you live or work and second, what bills they’ve introduced (even if not related to business concerns).

You can answer the representation question through NAED’s Government Action Center. Then, turn to www.congress.gov to look up bills your legislators have introduced.  These bills may not be connected in any way to electrical industry concerns, but it’s still good to know what they care about so you can frame your issue in a way that resonates with them. 

Finally, you might also want to know where they are on the political spectrum.  A more fiscally conservative member of Congress, for example, will be more intrigued with arguments about economic development and job creation, while a member of Congress on the other side of the aisle might want to learn more about your company’s green initiatives. Never feel as though you can’t talk to one party or the other.  You’ll be surprised—some of your best meetings may be with those from the other side of the aisle.

Number three: Know how to talk to them

Your role in the process is to tell the local story. Think about the answers to the following questions:

  • What do you want?  How would it benefit others in the legislator’s district?
  • Why would the elected official want that?  What interests them and how does what you want connect to their interests?
  • Why do you want what you’re asking for (beyond “I want to make more money”)? How many employees do you have?  What is your economic benefit to the community? What other benefits do you provide?

Through your personal story you show how the very strange things that happen in Washington, D.C. impact real people (i.e., voters) outside the beltway. That’s the number one thing policymakers want to know.

What really matters in effective influence

Besides not asking for it, what’s another big reason you might not get a sale? Lack of follow-up. Most advocates do not follow-up on their communications with legislators, and then wonder why their representatives don’t do what they were asked to do.  You can boost your chance of success through district-based activities, such as attending a town hall meeting, scheduling a visit or talking with their district staff—soon they’ll see you as a valuable resource.

And remember, if you don’t participate in the process, you don’t get to complain about the outcome.  So don’t give up your right to whine!  Join your industry colleagues in Washington, D.C. and learn how to make a difference. 

Vance, the Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, is the author of five books on effective advocacy and influence, including The Influence Game.  A former Capitol Hill Chief of Staff and lobbyist, she works with a wide range of groups to improve their advocacy efforts.  More at www.theinfluencegame.com

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