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Clients’ Top 5 Complaints with Their Lobbyists

Ron Phillips[1], Republic Consultants, LLC, Washington, D.C., says the top 5 complaints he hears from new clients about why they dismissed their former lobbyists are the fired lobbyists’:

1)    LACK OF A LOBBYING PLAN – seemingly no organized approach to winning their issue
2)    LACK OF COMMUNICATION – between the client and lobbyist
3)    NO INTERACTION – lobbyist excludes the client from his or her effort on their issue
4)    FEE STRUCTURE – client feels it pays too much or doesn’t understand added charges
5)    MARKERS OF SUCCESS – fails to report on progress being made on their issue

At the root of the problems Ron describes are clients who didn’t know how to deal with the above before hiring contractors. Further, they didn’t appreciate that some contractors intend the above in order to manipulate or even exploit clients, especially unsophisticated ones. To Ron’s federal experience I add my own having worked with contractors in many state capitals.

1)    LACK OF A LOBBYING PLAN – this should have been settled before the client sent the first check. Client and contractor are jointly responsible for developing a coherent lobbying plan. Eyes wide open, clients must appreciate all contractors have unavoidable conflicts of interest as to whose interests are going to be served: theirs, other clients, money-making “golden goose” relationships with lawmakers, and always the lobbyist’s own business interests. A lobbying plan brings accountability to a lobbyist, who is freest to pursue multiple or even conflicting interests when there is no plan. An effective client demands a plan as a condition of employment.

2)    LACK OF COMMUNICATION – the connection between the client and the lobbyist may not occur because some lobbyists don’t want to “waste” time communicating with unsophisticated clients; time that could be spent pursuing other activities. If a lobbyist can get away with non-communication and still be paid because the client doesn’t demand communication, then why communicate? The client should specify communication responsibilities in the engagement agreement and elicit compliance.

3)    NO INTERACTION – lobbyist doesn’t include the client in the lobbying effort for the same reason as 2 above. I was in the room when a silk-stocking DC lobbyist told his industry association client: “It’s our job to lobby and it’s your job to write checks. And as long as you write checks and leave the lobbying to us, we will do just fine.” Some lobbyists are like real estate agents who know that with enough listings, a sufficient number of homes will sell themselves with little effort on their part. Until expiration of the listing or end of the legislative session, both sets of clients feel they have nowhere to go and are stuck being ignored and trapped. Client involvement, especially through in-house government affairs staff or member legislative committee, can improve interaction.

4)    FEE STRUCTURE – the client very well may be paying too much and contractors can’t be too explanatory as to how they spend their clients’ money. Insiders Talk: Winning with Lobbyists, Professional edition, goes into considerable detail in fee setting. For now, send RFPs to a few carefully selected lobbying firm candidates . Their responses will help determine an appropriate structure and amount to include in your engagement agreement. Fee management is the client’s duty which can be facilitated by effective engagement documents; including predictable expenses in the monthly fee; and no unforeseeable charges above a certain amount without client approval. The client doesn’t want to become a blank check, but signing blank checks will make the client into one. Clients also have to be aware of fee-padding in which the lobbyist front-end loads future fee increases. A biennial contract should discourage fee-padding.

5)    MARKERS OF SUCCESS – fails to give signs of success on their issue or report back on progress. Job performance evaluation criteria provided to the lobbyist in the engagement documents make clear your and your contractor’s mutual duties and measurements of success. During the engagement reference to performance criteria provides useful metrics for productivity, evaluation, and mid-course corrections.

Of course, sometimes an underperforming or exploitative contractor has to be fired. However, you can let them go skillfully or bring yourself unwanted drama and angst. By auto-ending the engagement period with biennial engagements and automatic new RFP distribution, client-contractor disengagement becomes expected by your current contractor and all in the lobbying corps, some of whom will answer your next RFP. Of course, a current contractor can bid on the new RFP.

Most lobbyists serve their clients honorably. I’ve known too many good ones to doubt that. But contractors are surrounded by inevitable conflicts of interest, most manageable by compliance with well-thought-out engagement documents.  However, sophisticated clients in all contractor relationships navigate to this star: if you don’t manage your contractor, your contractor will manage you; and not necessarily for your best interests

Especially for novices, the above can be intimidating. However, Winning with Lobbyists, Professional edition (hardcover, 488 pages) [2] can guide you through the entire process of finding, hiring, and working effectively with contract lobbyists.

It’s your lobbying campaign, not your contractor’s. Run it like it’s your campaign.

 

[1] Disclosure: Ron Phillips was my graduate student in the Masters in Applied American Politics at Florida State University. He also has contributed much to my writings and has guest lectured on state-federal lawmaking interdependence at the Lobby School.

[2] Available direct from the publisher or Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most book retailers.

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