Building Relationships with Legislators

Personal visits, letters, phone calls, email and other forms of communication are very important when they come from constituents who are well-known, highly regarded, and have gone out of their way to be helpful in a variety of ways in the past. Strong personal relationships are the best means of influencing legislative decision-making. Building relationships takes time and careful effort, but it is the most effective way to shape the thinking of those who decide public policy.

Be Indispensible

How do you go about building such relationships? In much the same way you cultivate friendships: by being friendly and personally helpful, by being a useful and trustworthy source of sound information and insight, and contributing your personal time to professional and political needs and interests. Your own party affiliation should not restrict you. Every elected officeholder represents an entire state, legislative district, or local government--Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. You do not have to be a member of the legislator's political party to work together and even to become friends.

Preparation is Key

You will need to do some homework about the key issues, economic facts, employment, industry, etc. that are important to the interests and viewpoint you represent. At the same time, familiarize yourself about the legislators with whom you want to build relationships.

Become a fountain of facts. For example, know the number of employees you represent in the official's state or district, the annual payroll and taxes paid, expenditures for local supplies, materials and services, investments, and philanthropic contributions and corporate sponsorships. Also, be aware of the community improvement projects that your company/university or employees support, environmental investments, contributions and activities, and facts about local safety and health standards and performance.

Some relationship-building activities include:

  1. Write a letter, email, or call legislators on current issues.

  2. Make personal visits either in Washington, D.C. or in the home district offices to discuss current issues or broad problems.

  3. Organize group visits on issues of mutual importance.

  4. Invite legislators to tour local plants and facilities, research and teaching laboratories, and meet with management and employees for discussion of problems and issues.

  5. Get personally involved in legislators' campaigns and the activities of your political party.

Here are some ways you can work with SME’s Government Relations staff to build relationships at the federal level:

  1. Develop resource relationships with Members of Congress and staff who can call upon you/SME at will for reliable and authoritative economic/technical information.

  2. Leverage legislative influence through effective coalitions and third-party activities.

  3. Provide financial support for legislators' campaigns, through individual contributions or through your organization's political action committee.

These steps will progressively build your credibility with the Congressional official. Establishing a reputation as an objective data source, for example, builds credibility for subsequent communications expressing opinions on issues. Political activity establishes you as a friend whose views are likely to receive more weight than someone who writes from time to time.

Using Economic Data

Economic data and technical information are often essential to support your case on key issues. Use the data you have about operating in your area or state to illustrate how much your organization contributes in terms of wages and benefits, local purchases, taxes, and other concerns. The data can be presented as a sentence or two in a letter to a legislator, as a brief paragraph in position papers, press releases and personal visits, or in a brochure for the public or government audiences.

If scientific data are necessary to address specific issues, they must be used with sophistication. Technical experts on the staffs of policymakers may comprehend and delight in complex charts and tables, but the decision makers themselves have very low tolerance for such detail. Avoid using scientific jargon when using charts to convey information. If such terms are required, you should explain them so that a nontechnical audience can understand.

When using economic and technical data, use exactly the information you need to build credibility and make the case, and then stop. Stretching data to fit the need would strain your credibility. Test the presentation by showing it to a few friends or neighbors beforehand. If they find it tiresome or confusing, there is a good chance that your target audience would, too.

Personal Visits

There is no better way to effectively make your case on issues with legislators and staff than personal visits. Such visits also are a good way to introduce you as a constituent. Personal meetings can be difficult to accomplish with the policymaker's busy schedule, but remember that you are offering an important business contact. You can arrange the meeting with the policymaker directly or through staff aides.

The following suggestions will help make the best use of your time and the legislator’s:

  1. Always make an appointment. Arranging the first meeting may require patience on your part, but be persistent. Later, as you become known as a resource, gaining appointments will be less difficult. This will occur especially if you also become known as a campaign contributor, political activist, or civic leader who can muster support on the issues from a wide variety of groups through your coalition activities.

  2. Be prepared to meet with key legislative personnel or committee staff members if the legislator is unavailable. Briefing these people before your visit may be useful so that they can prepare the legislator. Staff aides are often more knowledgeable about details of a specific issue than lawmakers themselves.

  3. If several individuals join you in the visit, decide in advance who will be the principal spokesperson. That individual, of course, should encourage others to participate in the discussion to share particular expertise or experiences.

  4. If you want to discuss a specific issue, make sure you are thoroughly familiar with all aspects of it before going into the meeting.

  5. When talking to legislators, try to be concise, well organized, and mindful of the other person's time. State your view firmly, but be attentive to the policy-maker's position also.

  6. Open the discussion by reminding the legislators who you are, whom you represent, and why you are there. Know the issue and the bill number. State your concern about the issue, how it will affect you and your organization, and the community.

  7. Always be truthful and never mislead. Your personal credibility and that of the organization you represent is at stake. If you do not have the answer to a question, do not improvise. Promise to get back to the questioner with the necessary information, and be sure to do so promptly.

  8. Come prepared with a brief (one-page) position paper that summarizes your points with facts, and leave it behind with the legislators or staff aides. If a lengthier document or answers to questions is relevant, send it later with a "thank-you" note.

  9. To gain a favorable vote, follow up with letter(s) and calls to legislators and their key staff advisors at appropriate points as the issue progresses.

  10. Maintain the relationship. Get your name on legislative mailing lists. Find occasions to see the legislators again in appropriate circumstances, and write to them on the issues from time to time. If you obtain reports or data that will be useful to legislators and their aides and that you can share with them, send those documents with a brief personal cover note. Eventually, you may even find policymakers coming to you for information, help, or your point of view on new issues.