Having Trouble Getting Meetings? Here are 6 Ideas That Work.
It is harder to get facetime—virtual or in person—with lawmakers in Washington than it has been in the past. If you are having trouble getting meetings, it's time to change your mindset. Here are some ideas that belong in your playbook.
Imagine that you are the head of government relations for a major organization, and you have a C-suite executive in town for meetings. Will you get that executive some time with a member of Congress?
Many of the organizations we work with say that it is harder to get facetime—virtual or in person—with lawmakers in Washington than it has been in the past. A poll by the Public Affairs Council in April showed government affairs professionals were optimistic. Almost two thirds said reaching lawmakers via phone or video conference was easier than expected during the pandemic.
Now, that appears to be changing. A combination of enhanced security on Capitol Hill, pandemic-related health concerns and a scramble to reach lawmakers as they negotiate major bills on domestic policy and infrastructure is making lawmakers harder to reach. Add to that a wave of Zoom fatigue, and the traditional trepidation about meeting with lobbyists, and the situation presents a real barrier for government relations professionals.
If that matches your experience, it’s time to change your mindset. Getting the meetings you need may take more work than they have in the past, and they may require a new strategic outlook. There are several effective tactics that every organization can use to entice lawmakers to give up their time. Some may be new to your organization and some are as old as lobbying itself. All take deliberate effort and advanced planning—and they work if you work them.
A New Playbook for Facetime
When dealing with Congress, the front door should always be the first option. Before you do anything more, we assume that you have made formal requests and that those requests did not get the result you wanted. Either you are getting stalled, repeatedly rescheduled, continually directed to staff or ghosted altogether.
Of course, a substantive meeting with a staffer can be far more valuable than a superficial meeting with a lawmaker. But there are times when your goals require facetime with the man or woman wearing the pin. If that is the case, focus on the lawmakers who are most important to you and think about your efforts in campaign-like terms. List out what you plan to do—we have ideas below—in order to get their attention.
One important note: be sure to discuss with your team and your leadership how aggressive you want to be. If your goal is to gain a meeting, and ultimately support, making life difficult for a sitting member of Congress may not advance your cause. While every case will be different, persistent is generally good and obnoxious is generally not. Calibrate your efforts to achieve the result you want.
Here are some bona fide strategies to increase the likelihood that a scheduler will book you.
- Make the Most of Constituents. If your organization represents constituents in the lawmaker’s district, find those with the most compelling stories and involve them in your meeting request. As we all know, lawmakers are far more likely to meet with voters from back home than they are with lobbyists, or even executives, alone. By ensuring that the constituents you bring have a real story to tell—a story that lawmakers will want to hear—you increase the chances that your meeting will get the greenlight. Survey the advocates you have in the district (you can do this using an email campaign). Companies have employees. Associations have members. Nonprofits have supporters and volunteers. Take the time to find those with the most engaging stories and solicit their involvement.
- Work in the District. Many organizations try to communicate with members of Congress in Washington, but that is not where the voters are. By engaging lawmakers in their districts, you quite literally meet them where they live. Staging a rally around your issue, for example, and asking for a lawmaker’s support is likely to get noticed. A more sophisticated approach is to launch a campaign using digital tools and constituent voices, which has the benefit of carrying your message, whether or not you get the meeting you want. For example, a video campaign on social media can reach supporters beyond your existing list and is a very public way to make your case. A call-in campaign targeting the district office is powerful because no office can ignore phone calls. Paid digital advertising is highly targeted and can be run on social platforms and high-profile websites in the district.
- Develop Earned Media. This is another strategy that may be more effective back in the district. All lawmakers engage in some form of media monitoring, and so an op-ed in a local or statewide paper is going to get read. A television or radio story on local stations is going to be noticed. By taking your argument to voters in the district, you are signaling that you are serious about your issue and your desire to discuss the lawmaker’s position. When the story runs, you can amplify it with a grassroots campaign.
- Bring Data and Resources. Not all strategies involve conflict. Often, you increase your chances of getting attention by positioning your organization as an ally. Perhaps you can generate a report or other data that advances the thinking on your issue. Or maybe it is something unrelated that simply benefits the lawmaker’s district. Is your organization hiring or expanding in the area? Are you doing philanthropic work? Reminding your member of Congress that your organization is a member of the community and a resource will never hurt your cause.
- Meet Them Where They Are. Lawmakers have schedules that are often filled with appearances. They attend fundraisers. They give speeches. One way to gain a small amount of time is to simply attend these events. For example, if a lawmaker is having a fundraiser, a donation from your PAC can get you in the room and, sometimes, in a position to have a brief conversation. While this is usually not the time to make a policy argument, it can be a great time to directly request a meeting on your issue. Whatever the outcome, you know that the request was brought right to the source.
- Cultivate Other Officials. Members of Congress are not the only officials who hold influence. State lawmakers, mayors and members of a city or county council can also hold a great deal of sway in legislative districts. If you cannot get on the lawmaker’s schedule, start courting meetings with other influencers. Capitol Canary has detailed information on state and local officials that help you identify and contact the people you need. When you get such meetings, make a big deal out of it. Post pictures on social media. Thank them for their time. Eventually, your efforts will be noticed by the local member of Congress. Perhaps those officials may even be willing to reach out on your behalf. If not, you’ve continued to advance your case, and that’s all any government affairs professional can do.