18. Have a successful advocacy meeting

When most people think of lobbying, they picture an advocate walking into a policymaker’s office, having a dispassionate conversation about the merits of a specific measure, and persuading the policymaker to support it.

But that’s rarely how it works.

When a skilled advocate meets with a policymaker, the advocate is mostly intelligence-gathering. It’s unlikely that the advocate will persuade the official then and there. Instead, the advocate is trying to discover whether the policymaker has made up his or her mind or is persuadable, and if persuadable, what it will take to get his or her vote. The policymaker may be concerned about policy, but it’s just as likely he or she is focused on more emotional or political concerns about the proposal.

Let’s consider how an advocate can maximize the impact of such a meeting.

First, make an appointment. Policymakers are heavily scheduled and you’re likely to waste your time if you stop in without one. When you get a meeting, ask the scheduler how much time you will probably have and who else, if anyone, may attend besides the policymaker. Sometimes a staff member who specializes in your issue will attend such a meeting, and that can be a good thing.

When you’re dealing with state legislators who are in session for only part of the year, the best time to meet is when they’re not in session, for example, in the fall before a session that opens in January. There will be fewer distractions and interruptions, you can usually have more time with the policymaker, and a district office meeting is a great opportunity to bring constituents. This is also a good time to ask legislators to cosponsor your bill.

Before any meeting, learn everything you can about the official and relevant staff members. If you’re a paid advocate for a policy group, you should have already talked to the policymaker and his or her staffers at meetings, receptions, town halls, fundraisers and other events. Whether you have or not, update your knowledge of the policymaker’s district, committee assignments and political allies, and read both the official’s biography and any stories in the media that shed light on the policymaker’s political and policy thinking.

Do not assume that you can persuade all policymakers with the same information and arguments; that’s just not realistic. Treat each policymaker as an individual and find out why that official might support your legislation based on his or her particular history and interests.

Before the meeting—prepare to the max

Let’s describe the form of your presentation and then we’ll tackle substance.

Carry with you:

  • A one or two-page handout that is attractively presented and provides a list of who supports your bill and the top three reasons why the policymaker should vote for it.
  • Copies of any charts, graphs or reports that prove the facts underlying your argument.
  • Copies of any news articles, polling summaries or letters that prove constituent support for your solution.
  • A copy of the measure itself and any amendments, if applicable.

Be prepared to explain:

  • Your basic position in 30 seconds—an elevator speech in case you can only catch the policymaker for a moment.
  • Your full position in 5 minutes or less—giving no more than three reasons to support the policy.
  • Your best answers to all possible questions and attacks—which you should have prepared for all advocates ahead of time.

As for substance, begin from some point of agreement—most often the overall policy goal of your legislation stated in a way that the policymaker will appreciate. After that, it depends on the situation, but in most cases, explain the problem you’re trying to solve. For this, anecdotes generally work better than statistics. Then say why your solution works while other solutions don’t. Finish with the best argument that your measure is a political winner because of public support or support from powerful interest groups or legislative leaders.

Carry facts and figures with you but limit their use unless asked. Remember, you are not trying to educate the policymaker, you’re trying to persuade him or her, which can be a very different conversation.

During the meeting—persuade and listen

If possible, bring a constituent, sympathetic victim, or expert with you to the meeting. Advocates are a dime a dozen. If you have with you someone the policymaker respects, you’re already halfway to a successful outcome.

Carefully listen to and watch the policymaker’s reactions. They may be different than what you expected and require you to move the conversation in another direction. If you do your job skillfully, the policymaker is likely to admit the areas where you agree and drop hints about what it would take to get his or her vote.

It may be as simple as, “I hear ya but I’m not sure my district agrees.” That’s a fine response because it tells you what to do—get constituents to call, write or talk to him/her. Or it could be, “I can’t cross the committee chair on this one.” That means you need to convince the chair or get somebody else who has more power than the chair to tell the policymaker he or she ought to vote against the chair here and make it up on another occasion.

After expending all that energy to schedule and hold a meeting with a policymaker, don’t end the meeting with a misunderstanding. End by restating the official’s position to make sure you fully understand. For example, “So you’ve heard from the AFL-CIO and you have agreed to support SB 123 to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. Have I got that right?” If the legislator is against you, stay upbeat and say maybe next time. Give a warm thank you no matter what. Remember you’re going to lobby him or her again!

After the meeting—update your targeting

You should already have notes about every legislator—preferably in a user-friendly database, as described in Chapter 13. Update your notes with what you learned at this meeting. If you need to take some action to continue the task of persuasion, accomplish or schedule it.