• March 19, 2020

How to Be a Successful Lobbyist

People ask me how I’ve been so successful at lobbying and advocacy work over the years.

The bad news is that it’s hard work that requires lots of persistence and a healthy dose of good luck. The good news is that:

  • If you have a good case
  • If you make a good argument
  • If you know who to talk to, when to make contact, and how best to reach them
  • If you’re viewed by others as knowledgeable, responsive and reliable

You have a good chance of getting support from Congress and the Agencies.

To win, one of the hardest challenges for lobbyists is managing the limited amount of time you have by choosing only the most productive meetings, making the right kinds of arguments, managing the limited amount of time that staffers and Members have, maintaining your reputation as a reliable source of information, and good communication skills.

How to Prioritize Meetings as a Lobbyist

In an ideal world, you want to leave every Hill or agency meeting feeling you have convinced the person you’re meeting with to support or oppose something. I’m going to focus on lobbying Congress, since the tools and techniques related to executive branch lobbying are quite different. I’m also assuming that the success of your effort depends primarily on your in-person advocacy. Since not every Member is equally open to hearing what you have to say, you will have to choose carefully who you will get meetings with and how best to l make each meeting count.

Who should you meet with? The first step is figuring out who is most likely to already support you, who could be convinced, and who is probably not going to support you no matter what.

Create a rating scale. Your number 1s are those who will almost certainly agree with you, and your number 5s will almost certainly not. Use whatever number of categories you feel will help you isolate your supporters, persuadables, and opponents.

How to Rank Members of Congress

  • You used to be able to use voting history as the most reliable way to gauge support. Unfortunately, with so few bills even getting to the House or Senate floor, you might not have enough votes to get a clear picture of a Member’s stance.
  • Co-sponsorship of similar bills is now the #1 way to judge how Members feel about an issue. When selecting which bills to consider, look for bills that touched your issue even tangentially. Cast a wide enough net that leaves you with enough information to be able to make a reliable judgement.
  • Add to your list any Members who have a constituent reason to support or oppose your issue.
  • Another great tool for ranking Members is analyzing who contributed to their campaigns. Are they like-minded organizations and individuals? Who else have those donors supported.
  • Look especially for repeat donors. These groups came to the conclusion that the Member’s record in Congress was good enough to warrant supporting them again. Contributions over several cycles is a great indicator as well.

How to Use Your List of Supporters to Prioritize Meetings with Members

Start with Your Number Ones.

They will be the easiest to convince by far, because they are already in general agreement with you on the issue. You still need to get the meetings, and you still need to present your arguments, but this part of your campaign ought to go relatively quickly and easily.

Don’t take your number 1s for granted. Just because they supported you in the past does not mean that they are a shoe-in to support you now. The last thing you need in this business is surprises, so get the meetings and make your case. It’s also good for strengthening the relationships you have with these Members. Choose which one of them will be your leader and get them to buy in on why being your “tiger” will be good for them.

Spend most of your time with your Number 2s

These Members are the ones who you need to persuade in order to win. Do your homework on each number 2 and then make a strong case.

Every issue has multiple facets, and different Members will respond to different facets. Do your research to figure out which strings on the harp you’ll play for whom. Research their history on this issue and related issues. What have they supported or opposed? Why have they supported or opposed those issues? Have they ever flipped on the issue? How reliably do they vote along the party line?

No two people are the same, so you use your research to develop a personalized communication plan for each number 2. Successful lobbying to a Member of Congress is really no different from successful campaigning for Congress. You have to understand what they care about and why. Then you select the facts you bring to be more in line with what they care about.

Still have time? Talk to Your Number 3s

If you have the time and the need, reach out to any number 3s who might be persuaded. Here, you will need to be a little more creative. Members who fall into this category have likely been on both sides of your issue. Why? What nuances of your issue can cause them to vote one way or another? Look at every possible angle. Find the key to getting them on board. Then get the meeting and get to work.

How to Make the Best Arguments in Support of Your Issue

It’s really not rocket science. You probably already know the answer: Make your issue relevant to a Member of Congress by showing them how it affects their constituents.

I’m frequently surprised by how badly some people do this. It’s lobbying 101. It takes time to build a solid case, personalized for each Member, but you have to do it. That can mean the difference between their support and their opposition.

When you are preparing your arguments, get very, very specific. Exactly how many constituents will be affected? What percentage of them support you? How much will it cost them? What exactly will the benefits be?

Come with details. This is what Members of Congress need to hear. This is how you can be a more successful lobbyist.

Be Candid About Any Risks

Don’t pretend that no one else is going to tell them anything different. On the contrary. Anticipate what your opposition will be saying and come prepared.

If there truly is a risk involved with the position you’re advocating for, be upfront about it. The Members will appreciate your candor. Then explain why either (a) experts have confirmed that the risk is low or (b) the potential consequences of not taking this action are far worse.

Coming prepared with all of the facts has the added benefit of solidifying your reputation as an expert on your issue. The most successful lobbyists are always the people who have put in the hours to really learn their issue inside and out. This is how you build trust. This is how you develop strong relationships.

What to Do If They Aren’t Convinced

You will never have a 100% success rate. Sometimes, a Member will hear you out and still tell you they come to a different conclusion.

Listen to them. Really listen. Ask follow-up questions. What you’re looking for here is what’s truly important to them on this issue. Why do they feel the way they do? What kinds of arguments affect their thinking?

This will teach you which harp strings to play in the future. You might even get another shot to try again with this issue. When you do, remember what you’ve just learned. Change your angle to speak to what really matters to them.

Be Professional

Regardless of the outcome, always be respectful and professional. Even if you haven’t won them over with the case you made, you’ve still made an impression.

Staff and Members remember who acts like a professional and who doesn’t. Lobbyists who speak from a place of respect for everyone receive it back.

This makes it much easier to get the next meeting. You’ve made the relationship closer.

The next time you meet, bring any follow-up information available. Did your predictions turn out to be true? Bring evidence. Continue to speak respectfully, but demonstrate to them that you are a credible source. Prove that they can and should listen to what you have to say. Each time you demonstrate your reliability, you make it that much easier to convince them the next time.

Protect Your Reputation and Credibility

Your reputation as a reliable, honest advocate is one of the most valuable things you have. You absolutely must protect this reputation at all costs. It takes time to build, but can be ruined in a moment.

When you tell a staffer or Member that voting a certain way will lead to a certain result, it’s not enough to be persuasive. You have to be right.

If you are selective with your facts, or if you spin the conclusions, it might feel good because you are defending your cause or your clients. This is the worst way to do business as a lobbyist, and it will always come back to bite you in the end.

Remember that you are not the only person providing analysis to Members and their staff. If another lobbyist comes in and shows that your conclusions were based on cherry-picked data or that you hid potential risks, your reputation is shot. You won’t last long in this business if that’s your style of argument.

When it comes to your professional reputation, being thought of as a source of misinformation is as bad as being accused of disinformation.

The only way to build trust among Congressional offices is to always be the most up front, most credible voice on your issue. Really be the expert.

Vet Your News Sources

Part of protecting your reputation comes from choosing where you get your information. I know it sounds cliche, but there truly are news sources that are written from a particular political point of view. It’s true on the right and on the left.

It’s usually easy for a person to identify that kind of bias when it’s coming from the other side of the issue. You can see right away that they’re using certain words or assuming certain opinions. It feels off somehow.

The challenge is recognizing subtle bias in sources that are on the same side as you. Their premises feel right. They come to conclusions you agree with. Their arguments resonate with what you already believe.

That’s what makes them dangerous to you as a reliable expert on the Hill. Sources like these might feel correct to you, but they will be fraught with the same problems that you naturally notice in publications on the other side.

Vet Your Internal Sources

It’s frankly no different with your clients, colleagues, superiors, other departments, anyone you serve at your organization.

When they come from the same general political outlook as you, their statements will always feel more convincing. Be very careful of falling into this kind of echo-chamber trap.

Fact check everything you hear. Look for multiple sources on everything. Take nothing for granted.

This is not unlike what good journalists do, and for the same reasons. Journalists want to be seen as unbiased reporters of events, so that their readers will trust both the facts and the conclusions of their stories. You want to be seen as an unbiased expert on your issue, so that Members and staffers will trust you to bring all relevant facts and valid conclusions.

Be the Expert

If you show up to meetings sounding too partisan, then your arguments will be seen as inherently biased, and therefore weaker.

So come with a cool head. Come with facts.

Acknowledge that the other side is also bringing facts. Demonstrate that either they haven’t found all of the information because they haven’t dug as deeply into the issue as you have, or their conclusions are incorrect.

If you are seen as an expert, then Members and staffers will trust you. This is the only way to be an effective advocate for your client, association, or company.

Dealing with Information Overload

As lobbyists, we live in a golden age of available information. Modern technology and the proliferation of news and data sources give us an unprecedented amount of information. Each tool promises to save you time by bringing reliable data quickly.

All of this technology does not always save you time. It simply increases the amount of information available. You still have the same number of hours in a day, and there is no way you can read everything.

The trick is to figure out how to use these tools effectively.

Major Media Outlets and Policy Newsletters

As a general rule, don’t spend your time with the general press. Large media outlets have to appeal to a broad readership, which means, almost by definition, that they will not have the kind of specialized data you need.

The mass media provides a good background, but that’s all it is. It’s the general foundation that is just out there and which the average person is generally aware of.

Even the news outlets that focus on public policy tend not to be specialized enough. They’ll cover a policy area, but they’ll cover everything in that policy area, not only the issues that matter to you.

Specialist and Niche Publications

Spend most of your reading time on specialist publications in your area. For example, my lobbying firm frequently handles issues around coastal areas. Mass media outlets occasionally write good pieces on this issue, but they almost never include information that’s really new to someone who already has a deep background on the subject.

I subscribe to a small number of niche publications. If I want to know about the Army Corps of Engineers’ feasibility study of a specific project on a specific beach, I know this won’t show up on the top 5 news sites. So I seek out the one or two outlets that do cover it. More general publications as well as news from Members’ districts provides me with situational awareness that helps inform my lobbying decisions. In fact, we even do our own publication, WaterLog, to keep our friends and clients in the business in the know about news in our industry.

Legislative Tracking Software

You probably have a tool (or more than one) that tracks bills and regulations at the federal or state levels. That’s another source of information overload if it isn’t set up right. Some lobbyists literally waste hours each week going through alerts that, in the end, turn out not to be relevant.

You have to put in the time with your legislative/regulatory tracking tool to really refine your alerts down to just the things you need. This is as much an art as it is a science, and it takes time. You have to balance the need to get every alert about everything that’s relevant with the need to filter out the background noise.

If you have a good tool, it already comes with advanced filters that will allow you to do just that. If you’re having difficulty refining the alerts yourself, contact the company you’re using. If they’re worth the cost of your subscription, they’ll work with you to adjust the search terms.

Dealing with Staffers’ and Members’ Limited Time

Congressional offices’ workloads have increased exponentially over the past decades. Members and their staff are expected to ingest far more information than even lobbyists are. They have to deal with more issues, more quickly, than was ever true in the past.

To make matters worse, legislative office staffs have not gotten any bigger; in fact, several have gotten smaller. Each staffer simply has to put in more work.

What does this mean? It means:

  • It’s hard to get a staffer’s full attention because they have to multitask, especially if you’re meeting in their office.
  • Staff turnover is the highest it’s ever been.
  • Meetings rarely offer any time for informal conversations, which makes building relationships difficult.
  • Staffers don’t have the time to be an expert on your issue. With your help, they will get at least a surface-level knowledge, but that’s about it.

Let’s take these realities in turn and see how a professional lobbyist can make the best of them.

Getting and holding staffer attention

Take another lesson from journalists: don’t bury the lede.

Get straight to the point with staffers. If their Member does X, there will be Y benefit to their constituents. Then go through the details of how you got to that conclusion.

Have a good handout ready.

I know. It’s already the 20s. However, handouts are still very important. Handouts do a few things:

  • They provide a visual way to walk people through your arguments.
  • They help keep people’s attention on what you’re saying by providing visual input to supplement the aural input of your voice.
  • They help make your case stickier in their heads. It’s easier to remember something if they see it again later.

Don’t forget: 5-7 minutes before your meeting is over, the staffer is already thinking about the next meeting. You’ll be able to see that from their body language. So make sure you’ve made your most important points before that. Use the remaining time to set next steps and follow-ups.

Stay on Top of Staff Changes

There’s no way around this. You have to know, at all times, who is filling what role in what office.

Get a good tool that has full contact information for Congressional and Agency staff. Be sure to find out exactly how frequently it’s updated.

The tool itself is not enough, of course. You have to use it properly. This means keeping careful notes of previous meetings. So when you go in to talk to someone who is new in an office, you are always prepared to fill them in on conversations you had with their predecessors.

They will be grateful to you for bringing them up to speed. Don’t assume that the rest of the office gave them a full transition packet on every single issue. On the contrary. Assume they have not briefed the new staff member on your issue at all.

Find Time for Informal Communication

We used to have more time during meetings with Members to just talk. This was how we got to know them, and how they got to know us. The same was true for staffers.

It’s no secret that part of your reputation as a reliable advocate rests on being known as a person. Nobody trusts lobbyist automatons. They trust people.

When you’re known as a lobbyist who only shows up to ask for things, you’re less likely to be listened to.

When you’re known as a real person, Members are more likely to engage with you.

Unfortunately, since Members are busier than ever before, you can’t do this nearly as much during regular meetings.

So, what do you do about it?

Find any available moment when you can talk about anything other than business. This will help lower the internal barriers that Members put up. Get to a place where you walk up to a Member and they don’t cringe and think “What are they going to ask me for this time?” Become a real person in their minds.

Campaign fundraisers are great places for this. Just show up. Engage with the Member. Engage with their staff. Ask questions. Chat with them. Get to know them.

This will pay huge dividends when you’re in their offices trying to change their minds about something. Suddenly, you aren’t just a walking request machine. You’re a person who they know. This makes everything you say more trustworthy.

Educate Members and Their Staff

Because Members have less time to spend on every issue, you should assume that they don’t know very much about your issue at all.

A lot of people see this as a disadvantage. I see it as a huge opportunity.

It means that they are reliant on you to educate them about your issue. They need help synthesizing all of the data down to just the major points. They need to understand that, if they vote one way X will happen. If they vote the other way, Y will happen.

If you can boil your complex issue down to just a couple of points, Members will be grateful. This is hard work, but Members tend to appreciate the effort you put in.

Here again, your credibility is very important. If you’ve spun reality into something less than true, or cherry-picked your facts, or otherwise tried to pull one over on them, they will find out. When they do, not only have you lost this point, but you’ve ruined your reputation for years.

Always be forthright. Always be clear about where your facts come from. Build a reputation as a straight shooter, and you will do well in this business.

Tips for Successful Communication

Know your audience. Use the form of communication they most frequently respond to.

It’s pretty simple. If they reply to your emails, use email. If they pick up the phone when you call, call them. If they pick up between 7:00 and 8:30, make sure that’s when you call.

If you’re not sure of a person’s preferred communication medium, you won’t offend them by trying several times.

If you’re having a hard time getting a hold of someone, don’t forget that you can text them. I frequently find that, in a town as hard-working as this one, texting someone after hours virtually guarantees a response within 30 minutes.

A lot of people say that this is all generational. Baby Boomers prefer phone calls, Gen X prefers email, Millennials prefer instant messaging/text. I don’t buy it. I see far more personal differences than I see generational ones. So pay attention to how different people respond.

There is one exception to that rule: face-to-face meetings are always preferred. If you have something important to discuss, it must be face-to-face.

Face-to-face meetings just affect people differently. They create stronger connections between us. They also afford us opportunities to track facial expressions and body language during the meeting.

Are they leaning in and making eye contact? When do they nod their heads? When do they glance away? You can get some of these cues over video chat, but it’s much better when you are actually in the same room together.

Pro Tip: if you’re having trouble getting a response, just drop in. You may not get the conversation you were hoping for right then and there, but you’ve made a point. You’ve made yourself more top of mind with the staff. They will be more likely to work with you and respond more promptly in the future.

Closing Thoughts

Members come and go in this town.

Lobbyists and advocates tend to stay if they’re worth anything.

Start building a reputation as an expert on something. Let it be niche. You’ll be the one who is relied on for factual analysis. You’ll be the one who’s trusted.

Howard Marlowe is founder and president of Warwick Group Consultants, a Washington, D.C. Government Affairs firm. At Warwick Group, he has taken the lead in the water resources, maritime and infrastructure practices. Marlowe has more than 30 years of experience as a lobbyist working with Congress and the executive branch, and he often speaks to corporate and association audiences on various aspects of federal process.