Legislative Engagement Starts with Building Relationships
A lawmaker’s job is to help their constituents, but it doesn’t hurt the constituent to have a relationship with their legislator before seeking help.
“One of our best practices is to emphasize proactive outreach before ever making an ask of a legislator,” Sarah Locke-Henderson, manager of U.S. engagement for DoorDash, said March 16 during CBIA’s Connecticut Business Day 2021.
“What can you do for them? What can you do for their constituents? How are you helping businesses in their district? How are you helping consumers?
“It helps to do this before you come to them and say, ‘Can you sponsor this piece of legislation for me?’”
Locke-Henderson joined Joseph Eyer, vice president of public affairs for AT&T, and Kelly Memphis, senior manager of government relations and stakeholder engagement practice for the Public Affairs Council, in a discussion moderated by Milford Chamber of Commerce executive director Pam Staneski.
“If you have an urgent ask, of course your legislators are there to hear from you, you’re a constituent,” Memphis said.
“But if possible, it’s better to reach out and build a relationship before your urgent ask comes up.”
Business leaders can begin to establish a relationship with lawmakers by inviting them for a site visit, Eyer said.
“It’s a great way to show off our employees, our talents, our diversity, and the impact we’re making in our communities,” he noted.
“Site visits, where subject matter experts are available to speak directly to the issue at hand, are one of the go-to and tried-and-true methods that we rely on.”
Whether organizing a grassroots effort on the local, state, or national level, the strategy is the same, Locke-Henderson said.
“A lot of the same campaign ideology and grassroots philosophy can be applied from federal engagement level down to the grassroots, local level,” she said.
What Legislators Say
Two lawmakers speaking in an earlier Connecticut Business Day session said it’s important to hear from constituents.
“People’s testimony can make a difference and change minds, especially when it’s something that impacts your business or employees,” said state Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-Canton).
“We have the ability to fix a problem if you tell us,” added Rep. Holly Cheeseman (R-Niantic).
“The notion of taking your story—the jobs you create on Main Street, the philanthropic work you do for each of your communities—and personalizing them and tying them to your targeted lawmaker is the best possible way to communicate with a state legislator,” he said.
“There is no substitute for in-person, narrative storytelling to make your case for something that affects your family’s bottom line or your business’s bottom line.”
The same is true when dealing with your stakeholders, Locke-Henderson said.
“You need to personalize outreach and make sure that if you’re encouraging your stakeholders to write their legislators or to call, their stories and their personal anecdotes and experiences are what’s being amplified,” she said.
“Finding ways to engage in your stakeholders before you ask them to take action is very important. Build that trust and demonstrate a reciprocal relationship, particularly when working with partner groups.”
Equally important to building relationships is proper messaging.
“Make sure the message relates to your particular audience,” Locke-Henderson said. “They’re not going to engage in an issue that doesn’t relate to them. They want to know why this issue is important to me.”
“Creating the narrative that leads that person to take action while they’re on the sidelines of their daughter’s soccer practice when all this other information is competing for their attention is really like threading a needle these days,” Eyer said.
That’s why you should use every tool available, he added.
“It’s an all-of-the-above approach when it comes to competing for and actually getting that impacted consumer to take some action and contact his or her lawmaker.”
The panelists agreed the pandemic has changed how constituent and government affairs experts have to deal with lawmakers and can’t wait for a return to normalcy.
But Memphis noted that some of the technology that’s being used to bring people together during the pandemic may remain after it’s gone.
“So learning how to do things like having good lighting so you stand out a little more, and having good sound or good framing—all these technical skills, I think, are going to continue to be an important part of the advocacy picture as we go forward,” she said.
Connecticut Business Day 2021 was produced by CBIA and the Connecticut Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and made possible through the generous support of AT&T, with additional support from DoorDash.
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