A Primer on Government Relations
View the Primer on Government Relations as a PDF
The following is "Government Relations 101." The article is written from the U.S. perspective but can easily be applied to any legislative body.
- What is ‘Government Relations?’
- Who is your audience?
- Establishing/organizing a government relations program
- Developing the message
- Delivering the message
- Being persistent
What is ‘Government Relations?’
It’s just human nature. You are more likely to conduct business with a colleague or business acquaintance than with a complete stranger. Government Relations (GR) is merely becoming acquainted with government officials so that you can help them conduct their business of formulating and executing public policy.
There are four basic steps in Government Relations:
1. Identify simply means making yourself, your company and your industry known to the people in local, state and federal government. They could include the President, a senator's staffer, a mayor or a county commissioner. The key is to identify yourself and build contacts ahead of time, before you need them. Then, if you need to promote an issue, you’ll have a receptive ear.
Since this first step may not necessarily involve pushing a particular issue or bill, it’s a good chance to offer some general information about the size and number of employees at your company, the types of products you make, and the importance of your industry in the local or national welfare.
This step works both ways and you should take time to learn what committee(s) on which your legislator serves. Try to build a bridge between the focus of those committees and your concerns.
2. Inform the policymakers. Often, this means telling them something about the effects of their actions that they didn’t already know. No legislator wants to intentionally put legitimate businesses in his or her district at a competitive disadvantage or drive them out of business. If you succeed, they succeed. The information stage, therefore, usually focuses on explaining how the legislator’s proposed policies would affect your company, good or bad.
Once again, this stage works two ways. It’s your obligation to inform yourself about the issues and the legislation under discussion. The more you understand about what a bill was meant to do, the more you can concentrate on promoting its passage or, if you oppose the bill, suggesting alternative solutions. IPC can provide copies and summaries of pending legislation for your review.
3. Persuade the legislator. This follows naturally from steps one and two, but also distinguishes you as an advocate and not an educator. While you must always be honest in your discussions, you don’t need to present every side of the issue–just your own. Present your best arguments in a rational, well-supported manner.
Persuasion does not ever include hostility or threats. Nothing will kill your position faster than even hinting you won’t vote for someone. Let logic and facts win for you. Check your guns at the door.
4. Support is often neglected, but can be the most important element. Support includes thanking the legislator who promoted your cause, regardless of the final outcome. People need to hear from you after their campaign as well as before.
Support can also include campaign contributions, if desired. Most important, it should include helping with the work for which you’re asking your legislator to do on your behalf. That may mean offering draft language for a bill or helping to reach a compromise. It could include making your corporate experts such as your environmental director available to congressional staff or to regulators.
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Who is your audience?
Before implementing your government relations program, it doesn’t hurt to review a few facts about the people in Washington with which you’ll be dealing. Here’s a quick look at life on the other side of the table:
- Representatives and Senators – one word defines these people: busy. The average representative serves 500,000 constituents, while the average senator represents five million (imagine being president of a company with that many employees). Remember, the longer your representatives have been members of congress, the more demands there are on their time. That’s why your legislator does as you would under the same conditions: delegate tasks to his/her staff.
- Congressional Staff – are overworked as much as their bosses. While it’s their job to address your concerns, you should meet them halfway by being succinct, patient and helpful. When a staffer does help you, be sure to thank the representative afterwards. You’ll probably find the staffer even more attentive next time.
In addition, you should beware that congressional staffers don’t always fit the business world image. They often have multiple duties, including clerical work, and may dress rather casually but that doesn’t mean they’re not highly placed, highly knowledgeable people.
A few more common Congressional office staff positions include the following:
- The Administrative Assistant (AA) – is the representative’s top staffer. The AA usually helps influential constituents with a problem.
- The Legislative Assistant (LA) – works on all legislation, including that being written by committees or subcommittees on which the representative serves. The LA can help revise legislation or include amendments to address your concerns. Other congressional staffers include various aides, staff assistants and appointment secretaries.
- Congressional Committee Staff Members – are professionals hired by various congressional committees to provide continuity and expertise. They are divided into majority and minority staff based on the proportional party representation of the legislators themselves. Senior committee members may hire a large percentage of the staff. These committee staffers are usually experts in a particular area and they are very well placed to discuss your particular concerns in a specific field.
As with almost everyone else in Washington, these people work long hours throughout most of the year. Since the real fate of most bills is cast in the committees and subcommittees, that’s where you stand your best chance of making a change. Once a bill comes to the House or Senate floor, there’s little to be done except pass or defeat the legislation. That’s why it’s important that you become familiar with the committees on which your representatives serve and with the professional staff members on other committees that are of interest to you. IPC can help identify these people for you.
That concludes a quick summary of major congressional personnel. Note: Regulators fall under the Administration, not Congress.
- Regulators – while you may not appreciate the outcome of their work, regulators have the thankless task of carrying out what Congress mandates. While most regulators are neither elected nor appointed, they will usually respond to suggestions from affected parties. However, it’s important for you to distinguish between what a regulator can and can’t do under the provisions of an act. For example, if compliance deadlines are set by Congress, regulators can do nothing to change them.
These people are often trying to write rules based on other people’s dictates with limited staff, limited funds and very limited time. Therefore, they’re often most receptive when you work to help them accomplish their job.
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Establishing/organizing a government relations program
Setting up a Government Relations Program at your company is quite straightforward. It usually involves five basic steps:
- Identifying issues
- Setting priorities
- Identifying policymakers
- Setting agendas/mapping strategy
- Selecting actions and resources
1. Identifying issues – determine which current or future issues will affect your company. In identifying issues, you should review social, economic, political and technical issues and trends to try and predict if government action is likely.
2. Setting priorities – list your issues in two ways: by importance (effect on you) and immediacy. These priorities will help you keep your list of issues manageable.
3. Identifying policymakers – determine which policymakers are most likely to be involved in each issue. That will help you decide where to concentrate your efforts.
4. Setting agendas/mapping strategy – with issues organized by importance and immediacy and the policymakers identified, it’s relatively straightforward to combine these and set your agenda as well as map out a strategy.
5. Selecting actions and resources – put your agenda into action. You must select your actions and allocate resources. You also must identify deficiencies in your resources or information. As you allocate resources, it’s important to consider what other groups or organizations will be taking similar action. If someone else wants to take the lead and has the same goal, let them. Signing onto a group letter may be an adequate response in some cases. In addition, you have to consider what’s not important as well as what is and you have to weigh the costs of winning and of losing the issue. If it costs you more to win the issue than to lose, why bother?
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Developing the message
Now that you’ve picked an issue and determined what action you want to take, it’s time to develop the message you’ll be delivering. What do you want to say, and how do you want to say it? There are only a few simple rules to keep in mind in developing your message:
1. Focus – your message should center on one subject. Be specific, and clearly identify the subject you’re interested in. If possible, include the house or senate bill number. IPC can supply this information.
2. Goal – like a sharp pencil, every message should have a point. Don’t just complain about an issue; let your representative know what action you want taken.
3. Substance – back up your arguments with facts, statistics, or real stories from your company. Describe the specific effects proposed legislation or regulations would have on your company, employees or community. Try not to just reprint a form letter. Explain why the issue is important to you. Know what you are talking about.
4. Style – your style should be short, sweet and honest. Try to keep the letter to one page. If you need to enclose additional facts, background information or illustrations, include them as separate pages. Be polite and persuasive – you’ll get much farther. Don’t ever be negative, hostile or threatening no matter how frustrated you may be. If possible, personalize the letter by referring to a legislator’s interest or perhaps mention a previous meeting you’ve had with him or her. Finally, always be honest. Never, ever mislead or lie.
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Delivering the message
Now that you know what you want to say or write, it’s time to deliver the message. You’ll generally have several choices: send a letter or e-mail, make a phone call or a personal visit. The method you choose will depend on the importance of the issue, deadlines for action and resources available.
Letter – a personal letter from a constituent can be surprisingly effective. When writing a letter, proper format is important. It distinguishes you as a knowledgeable person. Depending on your deadline, you can mail, e-mail or fax your letter. IPC can supply mailing and e-mail addresses as well as fax numbers for those you want to reach.
A letter should still apply the four basic points in your message: focus, goal, substance, and style. Remember, you are not writing a thesis – a letter should not be longer than one typed page and should always end in a cordial manner – you want the recipient to respond.
Phone Call – if time is very short, you can phone your public official. To be properly prepared for the phone call, it’s best to have what you want to say clearly written in front of you. That way you can run down the information without worrying about leaving out a key point. As with a letter or other contact, it’s crucial that you be brief, specific and polite. It’s also a good idea to send a letter confirming what you stated in your phone call.
Personal Visit – a personal visit with your representative is the best way to deliver your viewpoint, even if that visit is with a staff person. You can arrange a visit either in the district office or in Washington. If you really want to meet with your representative personally, arranging a group meeting with several other industry leaders improves your chances of success. In any event, there are a few steps you must take to make it a successful visit.
- Plan your visit – be certain what you want to achieve, and which member of congress or staff person you need to meet for this purpose.
- Make an appointment – be sure to mention who it is that you represent and the purpose of the visit. Once the visit is arranged, be patient and be punctual. The representative’s or senator's schedule is often hectic, so there may be delays or interruptions. If need be, you may have to conduct your meeting with a staff person. You should also be properly prepared for this visit with the same clear information you would have included in a letter.
In addition, you should always be political in your discussion. Tie your goals with the best interests of your representative’s constituents. Be responsive during the visit by answering questions and/or providing additional information. However, do not ever make up an answer just to answer. If you don’t know, say so, then promise to research the answer and respond later. Last, always send a thank you letter that briefly summarizes the key points and thank the representative for his or her attention. If any of your representatives made a commitment, be sure to politely remind them of such and thank each one for it.
Plant Tour – the plant tour is an excellent opportunity for you to build a strong relationship with your representative. Your representative and their staffers will appreciate the excellent product you produce and the good work your company does. They’ll be much more likely to keep you in mind in the future and to understand how pending legislation or regulations might affect your enterprise. The representative will also like a plant tour because it puts them in touch with more voters. To set up a plant tour, you have to do a little advance work and remain flexible, but it’s well worth it. IPC will gladly help you set up a plant tour.
It’s usually easiest to arrange a tour during one of the following Congressional recesses:
- President’s Day (mid-February)
- Easter (March or April)
- Memorial Day (late May)
- Independence Day (4th of July)
- Labor Day (early September)
- Rosh Hashanah (usually September)
- Yom Kippur (September-October)
- Columbus Day (October)
- Veteran’s Day (November)
- Thanksgiving and Christmas
Try to offer your representative several dates and don’t give up if you are rejected the first time.
If it’s an election year, you should consider inviting your representative’s opponent for a tour on a different day – that way, no matter who wins the election – you’ll be a familiar face.
In setting up your tour, you’ll probably want to include the following personnel:
- CEO or President
- Public Relations Officer
- Employee Relations Manager and Plant Safety Supervisor
The senior company executive should always greet the representative and accompany him or her throughout the tour. Your public relations officer can help arrange media coverage and photographs. The employee relations manager may be able to suggest specific employees well suited to meet with a representative. Finally, your plant safety supervisor should be certain that the plant has been spruced up and all safety precautions are taken.
You’ll need to set up other details such as transportation to and from the plant, breakfast or luncheons as part of the tour and the route of the tour.
Inform your employees of the visit beforehand and provide some biographical background on your guest for all involved parties. This background might include any common connections, professional background and hobbies or interests.
In addition, have an information package ready for the representative that describes your company, the jobs provided, the products you make and your good relations with the local community.
While the representative is touring the facility, be prepared to present some key points throughout the tour. Try to make the information both interesting and informative, and be sure to take your time and cover your key points over the length of the tour. Some of the typical talking points will include the types of products your company manufactures, their applications and usefulness to the people in the community. Also, mention the number of employees on the payroll as well as the benefits you provide for your employees including any profit sharing, educational programs, and so forth. Intersperse specific success stories throughout your presentation including challenges met, some company history, investments made in pollution control, compliance with environmental regulations, new equipment and safety programs. Finally, include information on how your company supports your local community both directly through jobs and taxes as well as charity work or other programs.
After the tour be sure to follow up with a letter to your representative and include any photographs that appeared in the local paper or press coverage that was generated as result. Remember to include any and all staffers or aides who helped with the tour and promise to stay in touch in the future regarding pending legislation.
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The best results come with persistent communication and conveyance of your message. Make sure that you follow up and remain on your representatives' radar screens. Remember, you are not alone in your efforts with your legislators. In fact, there may be groups who are in opposition to your position. You should create a program that will have recurring contact with your representatives.
An effective message delivered properly and often will go a long way toward instilling in your representative that your position is the one on which they should side.
For additional information on Government Relations and IPC’s lobbying efforts please visit www.ipc.org/government. For more information, contact Fern Abrams, Director, Government Relations and Environmental Policy for IPC, at FernAbrams@ipc.org.
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