Loud And Clear

Small and inconsequential as you may think you are, your voice can be heard in Washington.
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the February 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Washington is full of high-powered lobbyists and well-connected interest groups. Washington Representatives (Columbia Books Inc.), the lobbyist's bible, lists almost 50 small-business lobby groups. They range from high-profile, big-budget powerbrokers to obscure nickel-and-dime operations. If you're ready go it alone and champion your issue to the nation's lawmakers, take heart: It can be done. Thanks to the growing recognition that small-business owners are big business, entrepreneurs can be heard--and, increasingly, they're being listened to.

Ellen Paris is Entrepreneur's "Management Smarts" columnist.

Going It Alone

Individual lobbying isn't as hard as you might think. Sure, it takes time, commitment and persistence, but the impact you can have on an issue may surprise you. Of course, there are tricks of the trade and inside tips you need to know, but don't think for a minute that only top lobbyists get results.

Your first step is finding out who your representatives are, if you don't already know, and learning as much as you can about them. "Make sure you're talking or communicating with someone who can do something for you," says Stephanie Vance, a former congressional aide and author of Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress (AdVanced Consulting). In the House of Representatives, you need to know who represents your district; he or she will be your primary contact. On the Senate side, you can reach out to both your state's senators.

The next step in your lobbying campaign? Because the various House and Senate committees do the bulk of the real legislative work, you need to find out what committees your representative and senators sit on. Taking a quick look at their Web sites will yield that information. It's also crucial to find out where your member is on a committee's food chain. If your representative is low-ranking, you can ask that he or she lobby a more senior member.

"Knowing what committees your representative or senator is on can change what you ask him to do for you," Vance explains. If your representative doesn't sit on a committee that's relevant to the issue you're concerned about, he or she can still help you reach a member of the appropriate committee. If your issue is important enough to your congressperson, he or she may even do a little political horse-trading on your behalf.

Getting The Message Across

After you figure out who the key players are and whom to talk to, you need to develop your message. This step takes research and discipline. Find out what issues your representative feels passionate about, then try to present your concern in a way that will play to those interests. These days, educating yourself on the issues is easy. Most members of Congress have Web sites that tell you what they're working on and how they've voted on different pieces of legislation.

"You can really get a sense of the key issues they're addressing now or in the near future," observes Karen Kerrigan, chair of the Small Business Survival committee, a non-partisan small-business advocacy group with a membership of 50,000.

Here are some other guidelines to follow when developing a message to get the attention of your congressperson:

  • Know whether your issue is a statute change, which requires laws to be rewritten, or an appropriation issue, in which funding is necessary.
  • Figure out why your representative should care about a single issue from a single constituent. Then set out to convince him or her. For example, any issue that will cost jobs in a member's district will probably stir some interest.
  • Don't just complain. You need to clearly explain why the issue is important to you, other business owners and the district or state your congressperson represents.
  • Do your homework and know the facts. That's where looking up what bills have been introduced on your issue counts. Speaking from experience, Vance says, "Some people come in and ask members to co-sponsor things they have already [co-sponsored] or actually introduced themselves. You automatically lose your credibility because you haven't done your homework."

Along these lines, know the current status of your issue. "Nothing hurts you more than firing off a letter on an issue that has already been resolved," says Dave McClure of the Association of Online Professionals. McClure, who has successfully lobbied for his association, cautions, "Pick your battles carefully, don't be emotional, and separate your personal and ideological battles from business ones."

  • Never exaggerate, be untruthful or omit important facts when coming up with your core message. And remember, anecdotal examples from your district are always good; they get people's attention and give your congressional representatives some ammunition if they decide to go to bat for you.
  • Be focused and specific. The hard part is honing all this down so you can deliver your message in less than five minutes if you get the opportunity to meet with your congressperson, or on one or two pages if you write to him or her. Just remember, legislators are busy and they get requests from people like you every day. Give them a long, drawn-out, tedious explanation of your cause, and their eyes will glaze over with thoughts of their 2004 campaign long before you're finished.
  • Demand action. Know what solution you want, and convey that. Your issue has to be one where definitive action needs to be taken. "Don't just walk in and say, `I've got a problem; what will you do for me?' " says Richard Barnes, a longtime Washington, DC, attorney and lobbyist. "You have to know your issue well enough that you can articulate what needs to be done."

Congressional offices receive an enormous amount of constituent mail. Surprisingly, most of it is answered. On average, representatives of small states receive about 10,000 letters annually; those from large states such as California and New York can get as many as 250,000 letters a year. To get the right kind of attention, you need the right kind of message.

Special Delivery

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."

Capitol Idea

If you do make a trip to Washington, here are some suggestions for making it a success:

  • Make an appointment as far in advance as possible. And be organized--it doesn't matter whether you're seeing a staffer, a senator or your representative. Listen to the advice of Patricia Forbes, minority staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Small Business: "When people come in," she says, "they must understand that everybody is very busy. Be organized and figure out your top three to five points, make them, say thank you and leave. You should leave behind only one page of information but offer more if the person is interested. Most important, don't misrepresent your position or use incorrect data; it undercuts you completely."
  • Find strength in numbers. The voice of one becomes much louder and better-heard when it's joined by others. Forbes explains: "It's hard to lobby for an issue if you're the only one who cares. Sixty letters make more of an impact than just one. You should mobilize if you can. Memberships in organizations such as trade or small-business groups are good for that purpose."

Jeanne Morin, a principal of Washington, DC, lobbying firm Jefferson Government Relations who has worked on the House Small Business Committee, agrees. "If your issue is common to others, that can help you deliver your message," she says. "I strongly recommend getting involved with an association."

It's imperative you know how many others are on your side of an issue. The easiest way to do that may well be through a trade association. In any kind of lobbying effort, you want to bring as much breadth and strength to it as you can. If you can mobilize other entrepreneurs, you have a better chance of getting somewhere. Associations are also helpful in keeping you updated on legislative actions and issues. They often provide regular updates by fax, e-mail and on the Internet.

Lobbying--make no mistake--is hard work. But it's possible to take an issue critical to your business all the way to Capitol Hill and get results. Listen to Kerrigan: "Don't forget, as a business owner, you're important to your lawmakers because you create jobs. You're seen as a leader. You're not grass roots; as we say in Washington, you're grass tops."

Dot.govs And The Like

The Web has added a new dimension to lobbying. "With the Internet, it doesn't have to cost a penny to make a difference," says Daniel Bennett, co-principal of e-advocates and co-author of The Net Effect: How Cyber Advocacy is Changing the Political Landscape (Capitol Advantage) with Pam Fielding. "The Internet can increase your political capabilities. And you'll find kindred people." Available services include online newsletters, chat rooms, bulletin boards and e-mail campaigns.

What Would A Lobbyist Do?

  • Meet your representative and senators or their staffs.
  • Meet with the federal agency that works on your issue (your representative's office can help with this).
  • Meet with a senior member of the appropriate Senate or House committee or their staff members.
  • Meet with the lobbyists or executive director of a trade or business association you belong to.
  • Meet with an author of the bill, if you're following specific legislation.
  • Meet with the media (trade newsletters, specialty publications and the Washington, DC, bureau of your hometown newspaper) if the issue lends itself to press coverage.

The Basics

Before you buy a plane ticket to Washington, DC, make sure you have all your basic information at hand. The Web is a good place to find answers to these and many more questions:

  • What bills has my representative or senator introduced? You can also find this information at http://thomas.loc.gov.
  • What government research reports are available on my issue? Search http://www.gao.gov to find out what the government has been up to.

Insider Tips

  • Schedule your appointments with members before 10 a.m. on a voting day if possible.
  • Congress' busiest months in terms of receiving visitors are February, March and April, so plan your schedule accordingly.
  • Forget fancy reports. Leave behind one page of information in a manila folder with your name, address and phone number on it and a business card attached.
  • When e-mailing, be sure to also include your snail mail address.

Contact Sources

AdVanced Consulting, (202) 338-6311, http://www.advancedco.net

Richard Barnes, (202) 895-1513, dbarnes@erols.com

Michael Flanagan, (202) 662-3735, flanagan@wexlergroup.com

Jefferson Government Relations, jeanne_morin@jeffersongr.com

National Association of Women Business Owners, P.O. Box 2252, Del Mar, CA 92014, fax: (858) 454-2126

Power Up!, fax: (408) 956-1776, 73654.3123@compuserve.com

Senate's Committee on Small Business, (202) 224-8496, pforbes@small-bus.senate.gov

Small Business Survival Committee, (202) 785-0238, kkerrigan@email.msn.com

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