OK, so you've defined your message. Now you have to deliver it. This is where the congressional staffers come in. It's critical to establish good relationships with the staffers you need to work with. They are the gatekeepers, and they decide what's worth their congressperson's time and attention. Don't be deceived: Just because most staffers are young (typically under 30) doesn't mean they're just glorified clerical help. In fact, they can wield a lot of power.
"Don't ever, ever tick off a congressional staffer," cautions Janie Emerson, a national director of the Public Policy Council for the National Association of Women Business Owners. "Always treat them with respect. They can be a wonderful resource and an ally. Make them your friend." The simplest way to find the right staffer is to call your member's Washington office and ask which legislative assistant handles the issue you're interested in. If you think that only face-time with your congressperson will do, ask to speak with the scheduler.
Frances Nevarez, 41, founder and president of \PowerUp!, a 7-year-old San Jose, California, software and technical training company, has lobbied before the House of Representatives on an issue near and dear to her heart: SBA certification. Nevarez learned a lot from her experience. "I found the member's staff to be critical," she says. "When I go see them, I'm prepared with supporting documents, but I make my presentation very brief. I keep it short and to the point."
Once you know whom to contact, there are a few simple rules to follow:
1. Put your address on all correspondence. Members need to know where your business is. If you have more than one issue to discuss, send separate letters on each one. One issue per letter is the rule since different people in your congressperson's office follow different issues. Ask for a response acknowledging your request so you can track your progress. Forget postcard campaigns; staffers pay little attention to them. Congressional offices are small and space is limited, so piles of papers got tossed daily.
2. Start locally. The best place to launch your lobbying effort is the one most often overlooked: your member's district office. This home office is an underutilized asset staffed with trained people to help you. Unlike in Washington, the pace is slower and the atmosphere more relaxed. So don't make the mistake of thinking a trip to the nation's capital is absolutely necessary. "DC is so crazy; you can have a much more in-depth meeting on your issue with a staffer in the district office," says Vance.
When you contact the district office, ask for an appointment with the field representative or case worker who handles your issue. If possible, go armed with relevant clips from local newspapers. And always remember to offer a compelling reason why your representative should care about your issue.
House and Senate members travel back to their districts quite often. That means the chances of meeting them on their home turf are reasonable. Members are approachable at Rotary Club "rubber chicken circuit" lunches and Little League pancake breakfasts. Town-hall meetings sponsored by your representative are generally well-advertised and usually open to all.
In addition, members often have open hours in their district office a few times each month, specifically to see constituents. Take advantage of that time.
3. Make yourself visible. Howard Sherman, 30, co-founder of an Old Bridge, New Jersey, ISP, has lobbied the Federal Communications Commission and advises entrepreneurs to get their name out. "Whenever you attend a function, wear a badge with your name and your company's name on it," says Sherman. "You have to keep building a presence and then maintain it."
A little imagination can get you some face-to-face contact with your lawmaker. Michael Flanagan, who was a representative for Chicago in the mid-'90s, is now a consultant and Washington, DC, lobbyist. He says inviting your congresspeople to visit your business or take a company tour is an excellent way to get their ear. "If I were a small-business owner, I'd invite my congressperson to come see my business," says Flanagan. "Most members have a great interest in what goes on in their district." Vance suggests coming up with an award for a member, complete with a ceremony.
When it comes to pitching your message, be positive and try to leave politics at the door. That said, contributing to a member's campaign helps you get attention. Even a small contribution gets you on the donor list. Says Emerson, "This lays the groundwork for you. And forget your party affiliation. Contribute to all your representatives' campaigns; even after they win, they need the money to retire their campaign debt, and it gets you on the list."