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My Five Rules of Advocacy

Do you feel strongly about an issue? Do you want to have an impact? Do you not know where to start? Well, this blog might be of assistance.

I’m going to make it generic enough to apply to your community association, local, state, or national government. It’s based on my 40 years of experience in trying to influence the behavior of elected officials. Both at the National Archives and the Legal Services Corporation I had a decent batting average so feel that I might have something useful to share.

1. Know your issue.

This might be the most important of all rules I have to offer. Having an opinion, and knowing an issue are two different things. We all have opinions, but if the issue is important enough to you to get involved, do your homework.

As you move forward you will be questioned and challenged. The best way to anticipate those questions and challenges is to know all sides of an issue. What are the pros and cons of your position? What are the other approaches and why do you feel that your solution is best?

If other approaches have a history, know what that is. We tried it and it didn’t work is very different from we thought about it but didn’t try.

What is the geographic transferability of the solution you are advocating? It worked in Townville, and it will work here is an effective argument. But be sure you are not mixing cultures, environments, or demographics. Bernie Sanders’ arguments about universal healthcare became vulnerable when the only examples proffered were small Scandinavian countries. Make sure you are talking about planting new ideas in similar soil.

2. Who agrees with you?

There is likely a group of fellow citizens who are also impacted by your issue and have already organized. Google the issue, the bill number, or names of those who you’ve seen and heard in the media. Be sure that the group is on your side of the solution because names like, “The Committee for Good Government”, or the “Coalition for Responsible Growth” might just be funded by the very interests that you are fighting.

Once you find your compadres, read everything they have published. That will go a long way towards gaining the knowledge of the issue recommended in #1. Go to a meeting and meet the other players. Are they folks you are comfortable working with or is there another option that might feel better?

3. Know the process

Every issue has a system to navigate. Know the system that you are trying to influence. If you are trying to change the system, that ironically might have a different path to master.

When are the meetings? When are the critical votes? What is the lead time to be included? Are written comments a part of the process and are they effective in determining the outcome? Are you comfortable testifying? Is there a televised or YouTube Video option to see previous meetings and get a feel for the venue?

4. Who are the players? Who are the players? Who are the players?

Things that are repeated are rather important. None more so than the decision makers and influencers in the process.

Who are the current or likely proponents of your issue? What have they said publicly on the matter, and do they rely on a constituency for reelection that is likely to support your position. Who are their key supporters in your community, and do you know any of them personally? Do they have other members of the body that they are allied with that you know?

Do they have key staff members that are reachable?

Are you or your group ready for a face to face?

5. Always Aim for a Personal Meeting

While email and letters are an effective way of introducing yourself and your issue to a decisionmaker, seldom are they enough to achieve your goals. Elected public officials, as the name implies, are generally comfortable with face-to-face meetings with the public. That is how they got the job.

Once you set up the meeting, go down this checklist and be sure you are ready.

a. Who is this person?

It is both essential and flattering to walk into a meeting having researched all public resources on your official. Their schools, career, interests, and family will offer a myriad of ways to connect in the first minute or two of the meeting. We connect with small talk, and you are either prepared or not. If all you have to talk about is the weather, you have failed right out of the gate.

b. Who else are they likely to have in the meeting?

You are treading ground that has been tread many times before and there is someone in your group who can predict who else will be sitting in. Do they have a subject expert? Do they have a Chief of Staff who attends all meetings? If a last-minute floor vote pulls the decision maker away from the meeting, who is likely to substitute? What are their schools, career, interests, and family? Don’t be stuck with the weather as your opener with them either.

c. Introduce yourself.

Public officials want to know who you are as well, so, send a short resume ahead of time, and when face-to-face be brief but establish the things that will be of most interest. Where do you live? What is your interest in the issue? How are you and your family impacted? Then roll into your elevator speech.

d. What is your elevator speech?

It’s an old saw, but a useful image. How do you summarize your position in a one-minute elevator ride between floors?

You need to capture interest, demonstrate knowledge, be sensitive to time, and get to your ask. If your official already knows the issue, an “as you know” going in is fine. If they don’t, summarizing and promising a “leave behind” is a good idea.

e. Tell a story

What? I thought we needed to be brief. Well, if well prepared, a story can be brief. Write it down. Practice it. Be sure it can be delivered in two minutes.

But why a story?

You might be the 8th or 9th meeting of the day for this official and they all tend to blend after a while. She might not remember your name, but if you tell a good illustrative (factual) story, she will remember your issue.

f. Make the Ask. Make the Ask. Make the Ask.

Again, repeated due to its importance and frequent omission. As I got to know Members of Congress on a more personal basis, several told me that the one mistake bad lobbyists and inexperienced constituents make most often is not telling them “What to do.” Yes, meetings would often be close to completion and the congressman would have to ask, “So what specifically do you want me to do?”

The desired action could be a vote, a floor statement, a conversation with the committee chair, a press release, or advice on the way forward.

The vote can be a yes, a no, an abstention, or a vote without a public statement. That last option is deployed when an official is sympathetic to your position, but can’t give you his vote. Asking for a vote in silence from an influential lawmaker is a thing. Also, an abstention in a key process vote might be all you need to get the matter to the floor of the legislature for final action.

If you have established agreement on an issue, asking the official for advice on the way forward is another very good idea. Some of the most productive meetings I ever had included statements like, “I’m with you, but you need to get a yes from Senator Brown.” “I will talk to Senator Sanders but get some background information to his humanities guy.” “Have you talked to the FCC about a regulatory solution?” Those are the comments that make it clear that we all have the same goal.

g. Leave the “One-Pager”

To summarize the issue and document the ask, leave a one-page document with the decision maker and/or her staff. By one page, I mean one page.

It needs to be in a standard font of no less than 12-point type. It needs to have bullets and lots of white space on the page. The margins should be standard with no cheating to get more words on the sheet.

I had more battles with my content guys than I can count over their inability to summarize an issue on one page. I’d tell them, if we were proposing to invade France, a longer paper would be in order, but under the circumstances, put it on one page and don’t cheat. A human being who doesn’t care about this as much as you will need to read it. They won’t if it looks like an eye test or a full chapter of the Bible.

h. Thank you note and follow up.

I know that this is going to date me, but please hand-write the thank you note. That will again set you apart from 90% of their meetings and make an important distinction.

If promises were made in the meeting, document those as well and stay on top of the process going forward. It is not their job to inform you. It is your job to follow the action and remind them at every step.

So, you are on your way. Commit your plan to writing. Follow through and Follow up, Follow up, Follow up.

Did I mention that important things are repeated?


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