Part of a lobbyist’s job is to mitigate political damage from impetuous, undisciplined principals acting independently of Government Affairs (GA). Below are examples of: 1) injuries to a lobbying campaign, 2) the principal’s behavior that caused the injury, and 3) lobbyist mitigation of the injury. In all cases, meaningful GA-C-suite communication could have avoided these friendly-fire setbacks.
Client disliked by lawmaker(s). In the Wall Street Journal, my CEO dismissed our district Congressman’s work on behalf of our facility. A past supporter of our facility and a key member of the committee having subject matter jurisdiction over my bill, the blind-sided lawmaker and his staff thereafter refused to talk to me. A chance meeting with the member outside the committee room allowed me to offer him a heartfelt apology for my CEO’s faux pas. He was visibly touched as if I had lanced a boil. Apology accepted he forgave our public humiliation of him and took me into the members-only committee lounge. There he warmly introduced me to members, who must have known of our faux pas, and with his help I got another co-sponsor or two.
Client not ensuring the integrity of its representations. My principal issued a media statement saying that unfair competition from China was killing our marketplace standing. The easily discoverable truth, however, was our technology was inferior to China’s. Once our technology was upgraded, the Chinese bought and shipped the assembly line to China.
Refusing grace to a lawmaker. Management refused to meet with our Democratic Congresswoman. However, she was very important to me for getting Democratic support for my bill. Unable to get her into the C-suite, I invited her to stand at the factory gate during shift change. There she met “her people,” that is, union workers going in and out of the turnstile. She proved to be a real friend to our district, our company, and its employees. Had I lost her help, I expect we would have not gotten D support and I could have lost out on a bill signing opportunity.
Political narcissism. My principal wanted me to make clear to lawmakers that were an objectionable bill enacted he would move the factory and jobs out of the county. However, D lawmakers in a blue jurisdiction were not going to be told by industry what to do; they passed the objectionable law anyway. Everyone knew a factory was not going to pack up and move because a law would cost a few tens of thousand dollars per year. Ours was an empty, self-discrediting bluff.
Taking matters into our own hands. Our board of directors had a great federal lobbying team. Thinking that only DC mattered, our CEO earlier had disbanded the corporate SGA team. However, the federal lobbying team knew that state and federal government affairs are interdependent. With the approval of the General Counsel, I was quietly employed to get the state legislation that would motivate Congress to enact our federal bill. (Note: at the May 25 Arlington, VA Lobby School, DC lobbyist Ron Phillips will go deeper into the interdependence between federal and state government affairs.) The combination of state and federal lobbying efforts proved highly successful. Over the years I got three employee annual awards for my successes, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the C-suite ever knew I was doing SGA. The bad C-suite decision was finessed.
Your Call and Solutions. Advocates must try to protect principals from self-inflicted political injuries. This requires you to show management that you know what you are doing. To know what you are doing you must get and stay in the political flow of the capitol. Participate in industry associations, especially the state lobbyists’ association, go to fundraisers even as a non-giving 501(c)(3), off-session visit lawmakers on the committees of referral. Make your face visible, even if just by loitering in the capitol halls, so that lawmakers, staff, other lobbyists get to know you on sight. I discuss advocate growth activities in the Insiders Talk series of state lobbying manuals. As I tell all my Lobby School students, if you are in the office off-session then you are not a real lobbyist.
Unless your C-suite is dead set against playing by the legislature’s rules, when management knows you are in the know they may seek out your advice. Even if you are new, as are most Lobby School students, you might even get invited to board meetings for your sagacious counsel.
The horns of a dilemma. Friendly fire from unmitigated bad in-house political decisions makes both lobbyists and principals politically irrelevant. So you are caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, you cannot go against your principal’s even ignorant instructions. On the other, you are straddling two misunderstood conflicting and interdependent worlds. To harmonize them you may have to tweak one or the other.
The solution to the recalcitrant. Hopefully, your C-suite is more open than the extremes described above. But some psyches instinctively resist GA advice just because of the irrationality of the lawmaking process itself. However, the greatest motivator of humankind is the avoidance of pain. When government affairs, federal and state, helps avoid pain then management will be more open to listening.
Make yourself a trusted internal expert by mastering the nuances of lobbying, by training and experientially. Then market yourself internally creating opportunities for yourself – good lobbying begins at home. You will put yourself in a position to help the C-suite avoid friendly fire harm to themselves, the organization, the lobbying program, and your own professional success.
Note: the Lobby School will be in Arlington, Virginia May 24-26. Click to see the 3-day agenda.