In 2021, there will be a new legislator landscape in the U.S. with 35 Senate seats, 435 House seats, and almost 6,000 statehouse seats potentially reshuffling. How are you and your team going to be able to build relationships with this new crop of legislators — and their staff — effectively and efficiently?
To help make 2021 your most successful year to date when it comes to forwarding your issues, we spoke with industry experts to sum up three of the best ways to build new relationships in a virtual world — whether that’s with the 117th Congress or leaders of state and local governments.
Activate Your Stakeholder Network and Communicate Concisely
“We work closely with other organizations in our travel ecosystem,” says Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association. For Barnes, the difference between getting that meeting with a legislator and their team, and missing out on an opportunity to speak with the right people, can ultimately depend on leveraging your internal and external network.
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By joining forces with other critical coalition partners, your organization can show the importance and sheer magnitude of the legislative and regulatory agenda issues you are trying to move the needle on.
Even with the right stakeholder network, though, it’s not just about what you communicate, it’s how you communicate. Above all else, whenever you’re reaching out to members and their teams, one of the most important things to remember is how stretched for time they are and how any communication needs to be as effective as possible.
“We need to be clear and concise in our communications,” according to Barnes. This point is echoed by Bruce Mehlman, founder of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen and Thomas, who says that it’s critical to get to your point across more concisely in a virtual environment. “Everyone feels stressed and overwhelmed and appreciates efficient meetings,” he says. “It’s also far easier for others to look at their email if you drone on, and they can lose the thread on the whole discussion.”
The most important stakeholders in your network have a finite amount of time, and you need to impress them with highly tailored and curated information. “Keep the meetings as short as possible,” says Chelsea McGuire, government relations director for the Arizona Farm Bureau. Set limits for yourself, cap attendance, and focus on making your message as clear and engaging as possible.
Be Creative to Get Ahead of the Competition
There will always be many competing priorities from outside lobbying and public affairs teams looking for time with legislators and their staff. So, how can you stand out from the crowd and build those relationships in new and exciting ways?
This is a wonderful opportunity to innovate and show up in new and different ways. There's a permissiveness right now that didn't exist before the COVID-19 pandemic.Tommy Goodwin, head of government relations
Project Management Institute
For Tommy Goodwin, head of government relations at the Project Management Institute, trying new things and breaking out of the mold your team has always operated in can make all the difference in building new relationships with lawmakers. Tommy believes that now is the perfect time to be bold.
“Use bite-sized videos from your members to follow-up on meetings with staff. Turn your one-day fly-in into a virtual advocacy week that’s more inclusive and allows more of your stakeholders to take part,” he says. “This is a wonderful opportunity to innovate and show up in new and different ways. There's a permissiveness right now that didn't exist before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Be creative and approach government relations with an entirely different perspective. “The biggest fail is continuing to do what you did before,” says Goodwin.
Whether it’s a golf event with the Air Line Pilots Association, a virtual cigar enthusiast gathering with the Premium Cigar Association, or a fall virtual walk with the Lupus Foundation of America, the way to get in front of new members of Congress and lawmakers across the country is to try something that didn’t seem possible.
“Nothing beats a live event, but [virtual events have] been a positive supplement where we have really been able to add depth to the personal story of our participants and advocates in these forums,” says Joshua Habursky, head of government affairs for the Premium Cigar Association.
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Leverage Grassroots Advocacy To Get Your Foot in the Door
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams have struggled to find new ways to get in front of Hill staffers and representatives across the country. However, one of the most effective ways to make your voice heard and build relationships with these elected officials is to amplify your voice through grassroots advocacy.
“The only form of communication we're finding especially effective is grassroots communication where we talk to legislators through our members in the districts,” says Russell Harrison, director of government relations for IEEE-USA.
For Harrison, allowing your membership to speak directly to lawmakers is one of the most effective ways to build relationships and foster an environment of transparency and collaboration. “I've always been an advocate for grassroots lobbying. Now we're doing it more and the messages are coming from voters, which I think is more powerful. Grassroots lobbying takes a lot more time but if you can do it I think it's more effective — and in this current environment it's even more effective,” he adds.
In today’s digital age of politics and activism, the role of advocacy needs to be transformed as it rapidly is defining brands’ reputation and identity, as well as the future of organizations within their respective industries. It’s not just enough for you to know someone to call or email and petition; it’s about who the people you are interfacing with know, how you can activate their networks, and how you can manage all of these relationships with limited resources and a finite amount of time.
“One of our greatest strengths has been our expansive grassroots network,” says Sara Yerkes, senior vice president of government affairs at the International Code Council (ICC). For ICC, using their stakeholder network and robust membership in grassroots campaigns has made building relationships with lawmakers and real, substantial policy changes that much easier.
Whether you’re talking to state and local leaders that have just entered the political space for the first time or seasoned members of Congress, the right grassroots strategy can help make your policy agenda top of mind for lawmakers and allow for strong relationships to be built.
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