Why Entrepreneurs Need to Know How to Lobby

These seven mistakes can prove costly when dealing with the government

There’s no question that business and politics go hand-in-hand. But for small business owners, cutting through the red tape in order to deter a local ordinance that might be detrimental to business, land a state contract or influence municipal policy is a matter of reaching the officials using the right mode of communication.

A common mistake that entrepreneurs make when the government makes a decision or takes action that negatively impacts the business is to call town hall and vent at whoever answers the phone. “You need to target the right officials, use the right communication tools and frame a compelling message, says Amy Handlin, author of Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government by Amy Handlin (Praeger, 2010, $44.95). “You can’t scare someone into help you.”

is that the government makes a decision or takes an action that hurts their business and they get legitimately very angry and they simply pick up the phone and call anyone and everyone who appears on the website of their town or county and screams and yells at them and assume it’s going to help,” says Handlin, a deputy minority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly, is also associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Mistake #1: Choosing the wrong level of government. To determine whether you should target a local, state, or federal official or agency, determine where your issue has the most concentrated impact. Then follow the money trail–who collects the revenues, and for what. Finally, check every document related to your issue and look for official stamps and seals for clues as to who handles it.

Mistake #2: Limiting your research. Dig beneath the surface of official websites. Use media archives, political literature, blogs, and Freedom of Information requests. Go to public meetings. And don’t limit your information gathering to just one target agency or official.

Mistake #3: Avoiding personal contact with officials. Get to know officials when you don’t need their specific help–particularly at informal affairs. Don’t hesitate to initiate an informal conversation. Cultivate relationships with their staff too.

Mistake #4: Having a weak or limited coalition. Be creative when looking for allies, and ask other businesses with complementary concerns to reach out to others as well. Even if you think you’re all on the same page, spend time and energy educating all coalition members on the issues. Have energetic and focused leaders who can keep members motivated.

Mistake #5: Making written communication faux pas. Double check correct name spellings and titles and provide sources for all data. Be concrete and specific. Research relevant requirements, such as time limits or numbers of signatures and make your communication personalized.

Mistake #6: Muffing verbal communication opportunities. In phone calls, face-to-face meetings, or public forums such as rallies or community meetings, humanize your story with examples. Use props or visual aids. Bring attention to who is supporting you. Research, review, and rehearse.

Mistake #7: Missing messaging opportunities. Don’t confuse a slogan with a message. Don’t exaggerate the facts. Once you develop a well-framed, fact-based message, stick to it and get everyone working with you to do the same so one consistent message comes across. Don’t assume your target official or agency “gets” it. Take time to educate them on the issue.

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