Building relationships within statehouses across the U.S., like any relationship, requires outreach, care and feeding year-round. Here are some tips to help create and keep a connection.
The Importance of Relationships
Advocacy and relationship building “takes perseverance,” according to Frank Harris, Director of State Government Affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “Advocacy is a participant sport; you can’t get anything done sitting on the sidelines.”
Continuous contact is important, Harris says, and staying in communication with legislative staffers is something MADD volunteers and its government affairs staff try to do.
According to Thomas Farmer, government relations director for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, “It’s a lot about relationships and . . . a lot about understanding the issues.”
Farmer relies on the tried and true merits of diplomacy and tact in both building relationships and presenting his organization’s position.
Tip: When Reaching Out…
When making initial contact with a staffer, be it by phone or email, it’s important to have talking points ready to provide a purpose and structure for the outreach, according to The Arthritis Foundation’s Mark Guimond, Director of State Legislative Affairs.
“If it is a bill on the committee that you might be able to talk about and how you might be able to help the committee staffer with that bill, or if you have a concern about something that you’d like to see legislation on, or see if there is any propensity for the chairman to take a look at that kind of issue, find something with some talking points,” Guimond says.
Guimond cautions against a call for strictly “introductory” or “conversational” purposes, because “staffers don’t have time for that,” he says.
The timing of your outreach is also important. Election cycles at the state level are among the busiest time for staffers, and can make it challenging to maintain contact or build the initial relationship, Guimond says. Further, staffers at the state level tend to be young and there can be a great deal of turnover, he says.
Frank Harris, Director of State Government Affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), has a slightly different approach.
”The best way to keep on top of legislation is to be in communication with the bill’s author,” according to Harris.
“What attracts a person to MADD varies from person to person; each state is different,” Harris says. “Sometimes there are pre-existing relationships with a bill’s author.”
Tip: Want to Make a Good Impression? Be a Resource
Political relationships, by their nature, are based on mutual interests, the Arthritis Foundation’s Guimond says. He attributes a lot of the foundation’s success in building relationships to offering up his organization as a resource, such as making data or patient stories available.
The job of committee staffers is to pass or defeat a bill based on the preferences of that staffer’s boss, Guimond says.
Tip: Honesty Maintains a Relationship
Thomas Farmer, government relations director for The Nature Conservancy, says that “honesty is the number one factor” that contributes to the long-term success of a relationship with a lawmaker or a staffer.
The Arthritis Foundation’s Guimond also suggests that if a staffer tells an advocate something, and the advocate misrepresents that information in any way, it is a relationship breaker.
While working as a lobbyist at the federal level, Guimond said he once witnessed someone being “blackballed” in the U.S. Senate for misrepresenting information.
After that initial connection has been made, don’t wait for your issue to get hot to stay in touch.
Once you’ve established a rapport with a contact, Guimond says, while it’s a little “old-school,” you should seek to keep your name as “the first in that contact’s Rolodex.”
Tip: You Might Need Software
It’s hard to build the right staffer relationship if you can’t reliably identify which lawmaker’s office you should be calling to do your outreach in the first place.
Collectively, state legislatures pass tens of thousands of bills, resolutions and regulations each session.
In some cases, organizations use more than one software package, like the Arthritis Foundation, which tracks bills from 10 different U.S. regions.
“We use two legislative tracking services; one is very good at bills and one is very bad at hearings. Another is very good at hearings, but very bad at bills,” Guimond says. “So, between the two, we have coverage on really anything that’s happening.”
There is a national strategy behind the use of tracking software, Guimond says.
“The nationwide perspective is: if we’re getting information on a bill that’s happening in California, that may be relevant to what is happening on a bill in New York, Florida, or anywhere else,” Guimond says. “So making sure that we know what the left hand . . . and the right hand are doing, allows us to make sure our conduct and our amendments are consistent from place to place.”
There are challenges to tracking legislation across several states, MADD’s Harris says, because “every state has their own nuances,” from length and frequency of the legislative session to whether legislators even have staff. MADD’s training program for volunteers is “fluid” because of those variations from state to state.