The Art Of The Lobby

Knowing the ABCs of getting your issues heard on the Hill is critical to your survival

Ever wonder why some small-business owners seem to get a majority of the breaks or why the ball bounces so favorably into their court so often?

It’s the art of the lobby–persuading government representatives to support or defeat legislation that affects your interests. Done correctly, lobbying is an extremely effective marketing strategy–one that black entrepreneurs must employ more effectively to ensure their voices and issues are addressed. Often it comes down to more than simply lining the fight pockets, and has just as much to do with persistence and knowing how to finesse the system. Planning is key. And knowing the right steps to getting your voice heard is half the battle.

Step 1. If you sincerely want to influence lawmakers, it helps to be an active trade association member.

“Typically, the folks on Capitol Hill don’t like to deal with an issue that helps just one constituent [unless it's a very large constituent],” says Ozzie Hoffler Jr., a former Hill staffer and president of Renow Inc., a medical supply business in Norfolk, Virginia. “Issues affecting you usually affect people in your business across the country,” says Hoffler. “Joining a trade association puts you in an arena where you can discuss issues with people who are experiencing the same things you are.” This exchange of information also provides the documentation and anecdotal data required to present a strong case.
Step 2. Once you’ve defined your cause and done the homework, begin lobbying for support by contacting your own senator or representative.

Although they may not be the people who can help, they are entrees to the committee members or staffers who can. “I used to lobby Congress and that’s’ how I got a lot of things done,” recalls Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland).

Step 3. If you want to capture s particular member’s attention, establish contact with his chief of staff or legislative director, usually the person a member trusts and relies on most.
“A lot of [entrepreneurs] don’t use the chief of staff as much as they should and feel they haven’t accomplished much if they don’t get directly to the member,” says Cummings. “But if my chief comes in and says I really need to talk with someone, 99% of the time, it’s done.” The National Urban League provides a congressional directory on its Web site, which lists the chiefs of staff of every member of Congress.

Step 4. Participate in your member’s district town ball meetings.
“You must be there,” says Hoffler. “These are opportunities to have face-to-face dialogues with members and raise issues.” You should also arrive with prepared questions or a package of information that you can follow up on. Usually, the chief of staff will also be at the meeting, taking note that you will be in touch. “Strike while the iron is hot,” warns Hoffler.
Step 5. Writing or calling requires persistence because members get hundreds of letters each day.
But according to Cummings, a letter marked “personal and confidential” will definitely get noticed. Whether writing or telephoning, introduce yourself and your issue, and

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