Conversations with Elected Officials & Staff: Building Trust

Our friends at CQ Roll call have shared an insightful article “Congressional Staffers Reveal All (On how they like to be approached)” with us, and we are excited to share it with you.

As a parent, with the demands of work, family and every day life we know that most of our Climate Mamas and Papas will not have the opportunity to develop long term relationships with congressional staffers. However, our feeling is that this information in this article is really relevant for all contacts we may have with any elected officials and their staff, whether it’s your town mayor, your local congressional office, or your state senator or assembly person. The advice in this article lines up really closely with our ClimateMama Mantra: “Tell the truth, actions speak louder than words, don’t be afraid”.

We hope you enjoy reading this post as much as we did and that you will take away practical suggestions that you can put to use immediately. As we all become more active participants in our democracy, we need to understand more clearly how our government, at all levels, operates. How can we ensure that our voices are being heard, and how we help to heal our democracy as we more actively find ways to help shape our children’s future and now. This advice is non partisan and crosses all political spectrums. Issues like climate change, clean air, clean water and our children’s health must be removed from the “political” sphere where they are being held hostage by hyper-partisanship. These issues are critical to us all, whether we are green, blue, purple, republican, democratic, or independent.

“ Congressional Staffers Reveal All (On how they like to be approached)”
Written by: Ann Dermody

Hint: It’s less lion stalking its prey on the Serengeti, and more competent professional.

Congressional staffers influence, research, craft and write legislation that could have a huge impact on your association, nonprofit or corporation. So, it goes without saying, building a relationship with the right Hill workers for your industry is key. But how do you do it in a way that not only gets you in front of the people you want, but leaves behind the right impression to get your issue moving?

First we asked a bunch of former staffers four pertinent questions.

What’s your:

• Favorite way to be approached
• Pet peeve
• Best (or worst!) memory of an approach
• Best tip

Then we asked several professionals whose job it is to get themselves in front of staffers the same questions.

Here’s what they said:

STEVEN TAYLOR  spent 10 years working for four different Republican senators, including six years as counsel on the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. He is currently senior vice president and counsel for public policy at United Way Worldwide.

Favorite way to be approached: I always appreciated an advocate who was professional, transparent, and genuine. By that I mean that he or she was upfront, and they represented a point of view, and wanted to make the substantive case for that view. I was always willing to meet with someone who wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes.

Pet peeve: When I was a staffer, I had a one-strike and you’re out rule. If you intentionally misled me, explicitly or implicitly, I would not trust anything you told me ever again.

Worst memory of an approach? I was on a subcommittee that had jurisdiction over some business issues. During a meeting with a lobbyist for a tech company, he acted like he was being a whistleblower, discreetly sliding a piece of paper across the table to me, telling me there was ‘some information’ about one of his business’ competitors that ‘I’d want to know about.’ He reaffirmed the already sleazy impression I had of him.

Best tip for approaching legislators on an issue? I think the two best things you can do when meeting with a Senator or member of Congress is to connect the dots between the issue and the state or district. And be sure your messaging about the issue relates to his or her view of the world.

LESLIE KRIGSTEIN was the legislative correspondent for Rep. Daniel Maffei (D-NY). She is now vice president of congressional affairs at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.

Favorite way to be approached: Have integrity and know your issue. A straightforward pitch that included relevance to my boss and the district was always the most successful. Understanding exactly how the issue or policy being discussed relates to the constituents back home was the most important part of any legislative meeting for me.

Pet Peeve: A pet peeve was when folks hadn’t done their homework before a meeting. Knowing my boss’ position, or the composition of the district, was important, and even if folks sought a meeting on an issue we’d likely disagree over, without proper preparedness, it wasn’t beneficial for either party.

Best/worst memory of an approach? The best way to grab a staffer’s attention, or even a member’s attention, is to make it a personal issue. When someone could make the issue relevant to the district, or to me personally, it helped their effort and made it easier for me to relay their interests back to my boss.

Best tip for approaching legislators on an issue? Be reasonable and respectful. There are some times that are better than others to approach members directly.

RODNEY WHITLOCK was healthy policy director for Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and a staff member for the late Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA). He is currently vice president of health policy for D.C.-based consulting firm ML Strategies.

Favorite way to be approached: I often used this line: “I know what I know; tell me something I don’t know.” To properly advise members of Congress, staffers need to understand the issues, and how they affect constituents. I always appreciated advocates who helped me better understand the issues and how actions taken by Congress affected their lives.

Pet peeve: Some folks arrive in Washington, D.C. having watched way too much Fox News or MSNBC. They make assumptions about the political beliefs of staff, and walk into meetings spoiling for confrontation. I always considered that an insult to my professionalism, and a missed opportunity for both of us.

Best/worst memory of an approach: A lobbyist walked into a meeting, gave me a rather perfunctory greeting, then opened up a three ring binder to a tab and started reading. After a few minutes, I finally interrupted him and told him that I didn’t handle energy issues. My schedule said he was here to talk about a specific healthcare issue. Without skipping a beat, he flipped to the next tab in his binder and started reading. It wasn’t particularly effective, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Best tip for approaching legislators: As an advocate, you have traveled all this way to speak to a member and their staff. It can’t just be a ‘one and done’ effort. Build a relationship. Let them know you will stay in touch on the issues that matter to you. You really can make a difference.

DAVID THOMPSON worked as a senior counsel and policy director for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He is now vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits.

Favorite way to be approached: I preferred an email introduction with a request to meet in my office, a summary of the issue at hand (in case I wasn’t the right person), and a signal about timeliness. If the matter were urgent – amendment on the Senate floor; heads-up on research, whether positive or damaging – then pick up the phone, text, or stop by. Drop-ins are hit or miss. On a busy day, they are annoying, but on a calm day they may be a great opportunity to sit and meet.

Pet peeve: I bristled at the attitude or presumption from lobbyists that meeting staff on policy issues was a game, or some form of kabuki dance. Too many lobbyists would email, call, drop by, or catch a staffer after a hearing to say they were new to an issue and wanted to take the staffer to fter a hearing to say they were new to an issue and wanted to take the staffer to lunch to get to know each other. That’s too much like a blind date, and not enough about establishing a professional relationship. Staffers exist to be informed, work through issues, and serve their members and the public good. Just set up a meeting and meet. It’s okay not to spend an expense account.

Best/worst memory of an approach? “We don’t know each other, but I want to take you to lunch to explain the concerns we have.” It suggests that the lobbyist has to buy the person’s time, and turns the staffer into an … escort?

Best tip for approaching legislators on an issue? The best way to shape the initial message to a legislator is to ask this question: What would make this legislator care about this issue at this time? Local impact, constituent concerns and outrage, and the policymaker’s ego, are all valid criteria to work into framing the approach.

For more ideas, tips and suggestions, you can read the article in its entirety here. Let us know if you have been able to put any of these ideas to work, and if you have any suggestions to share.

Ann Dermody is the Managing Editor for Marketing at CQ Roll Call, in charge of developing thoughtful and engaging content that serves associations, nonprofits, and the advocacy community.

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