Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Meeting Your Legislator’s Staff on a Lobby Day

During your organization’s lobby day, some of your legislators will be unavailable and you will meet with their staffers instead. This may seem inconsiderate or a waste of time, but these meetings are just as important as meeting directly with your legislator. Let’s take a look at what a Congressional staff is like and what you can do to ensure that you have an impactful meeting.

In the House of Representatives, a Congressman’s DC office staff is typically 10-13 people, give or take an intern. When I have spoken with past lobby day participants, most are surprised that majority of their Congressman’s staff are young professionals. Yes, it is true that Congressional staffers are young with the average age range of 22-26 years old. The most notable exceptions are the chief of staff and legislative director, the two highest positions in the office after the Congressman. These positions are generally filled with middle aged professionals with a spouse, kids, mortgage, etc.

So why is the legislature staffed by college fresh twenty somethings? Well ,these staffers are often underpaid, starting salary for entry level position is around 25k a year and I have heard of salaries as low as 22k a year. DC is an expensive city and it is near impossible to support a family on this salary. Staffers are also over worked, in session staffers may work as much as 60-80 hours a week. Lastly, there is virtually no job security. All the federal employee laws that are in place in other departments do not exist on the Hill. Staffers can be fired at will and some Congressional members have a reputation for cycling staffers every 6-12 months. In addition, the staffers’ jobs are in danger every two years with elections. If the member is voted out, the staffer loses his or her job as well.

On the Senate side, the staff tends to be much larger. Depending on the Senator’s state size, position in leadership, and committee assignment, staff can range from 30-50 people. Many of these staffers tend to be young as well, but there are vastly more graduate degree holders working on the Senate side. There is slightly more job security for Senate staffers because elections only occur every six years, but Senators can also fire their staffers at will. The pay is also slightly better, but not enough to really make a distinction. The Senate staffers’ working hours are also identical to House staffers.

Now that you have some background on congressional staffers, let’s talk about what to expect during your meeting. The Congressional staffer is always very courteous during the meeting. The staffer will also pay close attention to your concerns, regardless of whether or not their boss agrees with your position. The staffer will be especially interested in your concerns if you are a constituent. A common error I find among lobby day participants is to not take the meeting with the young staffer seriously. This is a big mistake. Although young, I promise that the staffer is extremely well versed in the issues you wish to discuss. They eat, sleep, breath, swim, text, tweet, message, read, and everything else with the issues. Additionally, the legislator will turn to the appropriate staffer, regardless of age, for advice during crucial decisions and votes. It is imperative that you have a good meeting and leave a strong impression on the staffer as he or she will advise the member on that issue.

As Kaytee mentioned in an earlier blog post, the young staffers are generation Y-ers who are known for being technologically gifted and furious multitaskers. Be sure to be extra engaging in your meeting and include online resources such as QR codes on your business cards, social media channels, and digital copies of literature. Meetings with Congressional staffers are 15 minutes max. Ensure that you get the most out of your meeting by preparing your concerns into a concise set of points. I suggest doing some role play with a friend and/or practicing in front of the mirror the night before.

If your organization is interested in learning more about specific strategies while meeting with a legislator or his staff, I would suggest booking an Advocacy training specialist, such as the Advocacy Guru, to speak to your members before the lobby day. Happy Advocating!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Advocacy Tips: You Cannot Persuade if You Don't Persist!


Harassment is a large portion of my job when I schedule congressional meetings for a Lobby Day. Persistence is the more accurate word, but I used the word harassment because that’s what it feels like I’m doing when I call the same office three times in one day, begging to speak with someone because the Lobby Day is tomorrow and we still don’t have a meeting scheduled. It can be uncomfortable to feel like you are bugging someone. And on top of that, I am also frustrated that no one is getting back to me. I wonder why they won’t just respond so that I don’t have to harass them anymore.

Why am I telling you this aside from the fact that I sometimes need to vent? Because many people experience these same sentiments when they are advocating their Members of Congress. They only call or email their Members once about a particular issue, and choose not to follow up because they don’t want to annoy the congressional office. They give up because they reached out once or twice and never heard anything back. I can relate, but my biggest piece of advice to you is to let go of your instinct to pull away. If you stop asking, you will never get what you want. I may have to make 20 phone calls to get that meeting scheduled, but I get it. When an issue that is important to you is down to the wire, don’t feel bad about contacting your congressional office multiple times. Be tactful (don’t call every five minutes), but keep the momentum going. The truth is they want to hear from their constituents. They want to know something is so important to you that you feel the need to call, email, and call again. This is precisely why I have stopped feeling guilty for calling an office three times in one day, because I know at the end of the day they want to meet with their constituents. Finally, don’t be discouraged when they don’t get back to you- it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Plus, I can almost guarantee that if you stay persistent you will eventually get a response. Now whether you get the response you want.. is something we’ll tackle another day. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Advocacy Lessons From Our Furry Friends

If you've known me for, say, five minutes, you'll know that I'm just a little enthusiastic about dogs. Some would say obsessed but I think they're being unreasonable. That's why I was really touched by this CNN article about a dog in Afghanistan named Giselle who has befriended some U.S. soldiers. In fact, she apparently befriends ALL U.S. soldiers she meets. Some people might have a name for that, but I just think it's sweet.

Her story reminded me of a tip sheet article I wrote many years ago after the demise of our beloved dog Xena Warrior Princess Dog about the advocacy lessons we can learn from the smart dogs in our lives. I won't reprise the whole thing here, but one of the main tips was to make the ask. At the risk of sounding weird by quoting myself, here's what I had to say:

"People don't know what you want unless you ask. Above all things, Xena Warrior Princess Dog excelled at making the ask. Whether she wanted a biscuit, a belly rub or a bite of her dog dad's dinner, Xena asked for it, frequently and without reservation. In fact, every once in a while it bordered on begging. Now I'm not suggesting that advocates resort to begging for what they want, but it is essential that you ask for something specific. Too many people try to "educate" their elected officials on the issues. They put all their time and energy into explaining the tragedy of situation X, while assuming that support for their preferred solution of policy Y would be obvious. It's not. Believe me, Xena never tried to get me to understand the tragedy of a biscuit-less life. She just told me she wanted a biscuit."

If you want to see the whole article, you can view it here (yeah, I know it's weird that it's on someone else's site. Thank goodness SOMEONE saves this things!)

In the years since I explained Xena's outstanding advocacy techniques, I came to recognize the one thing that works every time in effective advocacy, and that is big, melting brown eyes. Xena had them. Our current dog Ozzie has them. Both eventually got to the point where they didn't even have to ask for biscuits. They just got them.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Advocacy Tips: Diversity is Beautiful, so USE IT!


Unlike the not-so-diversified debt “super committee” (9 of the 12 members are middle-aged white males), the United States is truly a mixture of demographics (old, young, male, female, black, brown, gay, straight; you name it, we’ve got it). From a legislators-eye-view, the prominent demographics in their district or state impress upon relevant issues, community goals, and, most importantly, voting trends. Here at Advocacy Associates we stress the importance of being a constituent and the strength it adds to your voice when communicating with your legislators (you vote for them, and therefore they care). Just as Members of Congress care about what you think as a constituent, they also care about what constituents think as part of a larger demographic within their district (appealing to large groups equals more votes). This is something to take into consideration as you develop your messaging strategy. In addition to discussing how an issue affects you personally as a constituent, paint a picture of how this issue is important to a large number of their constituents by making some observations based on demographics. For example, if you want your Member of Congress to support funding for a health-related program and your district has a large population of senior citizens, frame your messaging to reflect the legislation’s positive impact on the elderly, and vice versa if your district is dominated by younger people. You’ll be impressed at how Member’s (and their staff’s) ears perk up when you mention a demographic that is relevant to their district. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Congressional August Recess or What The *#@! Are We Supposed To Do Now?

Here in our nation’s capital, we are at a time when the Representatives and Senators hang up their shoes and leave for their home districts or states. Washington quickly turns into a ghost town as many people in government relations offices take this opportunity to vacation, enjoy extended lunch breaks, and leave early on Friday work days. When speaking with my friends and family back in California, a question I often find myself answering is, “Why do they get an entire month off?! We still need to figure out how to solve this issue, that problem, or the other thing. What the *%#@ are we supposed to do?!” Interestingly, over the weekend there was a letter to the editor in the Washington Post defending the recess (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/recess-doesnt-mean-vacation-for-congress/2011/08/08/gIQA7ZDuBJ_story.html). Whether you feel the August recess is a well-deserved break or not, let me answer this frequently asked question.

I’ll start by addressing the first part of the question, why do they take this month long break? Well, back in the years of horse and buggy, the buildings our legislators worked in had no air conditioning. In August, the humidity in D.C. is so unbearable that it should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. As a result, the House and Senate would adjourn for the month of August to run home before the big bad humidity kicked in. Also, being a legislator before 1900 was not a full time job. The congressional schedule was only six months long so the legislators could return to their businesses. During the 1960s, the August recess became law because many legislators wished to spend some time with their families. As you can probably imagine (or remember for some of you), the 1960s was a busy time for Congress. For members today, the recess is not a big vacation in the Bahamas or Cancun. The overwhelming majority of our legislators use the recess as an opportunity to return to their districts and reconnect with their constituents.

So now that you have the abridged history lesson, let’s discuss what the August recess environment means for your organization or issue. I would NOT recommend having a lobby day, congressional briefing, or a meeting with congressional staffers in DC. Most of these staffers are out of town or will probably pay little attention during your meeting. Rather than trying to effect legislation, now is the time for your organization to turn its focus to creating a better relationship with the legislator. Connecting with your legislator in his or her home district will have a significant impact on the relationship as it solidifies your organization’s status as a vocal constituent group. Attending town hall meetings, arranging to have the legislator visit your workplace, or a simple meeting with the legislator will be enormously powerful in building a relationship with your Congressperson or Senator. The relationship you build today will be crucial tomorrow when you make your ask during the appropriations process, super committee vote, or the budget drafting.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Final 3 Members of Debt "Super Committee" Announced


Today, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD), Rep. Clyburn (D-SC), and Rep. Becerra (D-CA) to serve on the “super committee” created under the debt ceiling agreement. This rounds out the 12-member bipartisan panel tasked with developing a plan to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit over the next decade. Part of the debt ceiling agreement dictates that automatic cuts across the board on domestic and defense spending will be “triggered” if this committee cannot agree to a plan by Thanksgiving and get it approved by Congress before Christmas (happy holidays to all!)

If this special committee is any reflection of Congress at large then it goes without saying that they have a bumpy road ahead of them. With six republicans who have all gone on the record against any revenue increases and democrats that have strongly resisted cuts to entitlements, this group could easily fall into the same political stalemate we have all been losing sleep over for months (or is that just me?).  Here’s hoping they can turn over a new leaf and actually work together on a compromise. Goodness knows I could use the extra beauty sleep.

Here’s the full list of Members on the bipartisan panel:

Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD)
Rep. Clyburn (D-SC)
Rep. Becerra (D-CA)
Rep. Camp (R-MI)
Rep. Upton (R-MI)
Rep. Hensarling (R-TX, co-chair)
Sen. Baucus (D-MT)
Sen. Murray (D-WA, co-chair)
Sen. Kerry (D-MA)
Sen. Portman (R-OH)
Sen. Toomey (R-PA)
Sen. Kyl (R-AZ)

Advocacy Tips: Capturing the Attention of the All-Important Youngster Demographic

I recently attended a conference about professional speaking, and as I was listening to speakers speak about speaking (confusing, I know), a resounding theme seemed to pop up: it’s time to start appealing to a younger audience, aka the Millennials or Generation Y. To offer an extremely loose and clich├ęd definition, Millennials are those individuals born between 1980 and now, and they tend to be technologically savvy, media junkies, and a crazy combination of easily-distracted multitaskers (I’m definitely guilty of the last one). When they’re not busy getting distracted by shiny things (guilty again), the truth is these young adults are quickly dominating the market, the workforce, and even politics. So how does anyone trying to sell their message, whether a professional speaker, a grassroots campaign manager, or an advocate meeting with those super-young staffers on the Hill, appeal to their sensibilities? Here are a few thoughts:

  •  Millennials enjoy multiple stimuli. Millennials can watch the news, check their Facebook, play Angry Birds, tweet about playing Angry Birds, and listen to music all at the same time. And while it’s true that everyone has more information flooding their brains from various sources compared to a decade ago, Millennials are generally more active about seeking it out. This inevitably causes them to filter the information they take in (as impressive as it would be, they don’t actually retain every tweet they read). So with these subconscious filtration systems set in place, what ends up standing out? How do you get them to remember you and your message? One of the answers is repetition from multiple platforms. Create a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, a blog, and interconnect them whenever possible. If you write a blog entry, tweet and post a status update about it. Tweet your Action Alert multiple times throughout the day using slightly different messaging each time. Don’t just give that twenty-something Hill staffer your business card; make sure they have access to all of these additional resources.
  •  QR codes are the next big thing. I’m willing to bet my future puppy on it, and anyone who knows me knows that’s a big deal. Not only are QR codes the next big thing, but they have “Millennial” written all over them (I assume you know I don’t mean that literally). For those of you that aren’t in on this growing fad, QR codes are those funny-looking black and white boxes that you scan with a smartphone app and a website pops up (like magic!). They are free to create on websites like qrcode.kaywa.com and qrstuff.com; simply enter in the website you want to pop up when people scan your QR code, hit go, and BAM, a custom code shows up on the screen. Now just start plastering it on all of your business cards, one-pagers, advertisements (tattoo it on your body, create custom jewelry out of it, shave it on your head..), and you’ll not only share your resources more effectively but you’ll also be super hip.
  •  Be entertaining and engaging. Just because you are in a one-on-one meeting with a young Hill staffer doesn’t mean you have their undivided attention or that they agree with what you are saying. When you’re speaking to a younger audience it becomes more important than ever to find ways to catch and keep their attention, make creative and compelling arguments, and truly engage them with your message. Once you’ve done that, just hand over your QR code-embellished business card and you will be so in. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Congress- Now Available via Smart Phone

Do you ever find yourself riding home on the Metro, suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to know what bills were introduced in Congress today? Do you get irritable if you don’t have an instantaneous way to find out who represents the 99203 zip code in Congress? If you’re anything like me, and I bet you are, those situations plague you on a nearly daily basis. Fortunately, if you have a Droid or an iPhone, there is an app for that.
Droid owners are in luck; the “Congress” application by Sunlight Labs is by far the best available on any platform. To find it, search in the marketplace for “Congress.” The application allows you to search for members of Congress by name, state, current location and zip code—perfect for enlightening those unenlightened friends who don’t know who represents them in Congress (you’re going to be so popular!). The application also allows you to search bills and laws, and gives details such as who introduced it, current activity and bill text via Thomas.gov. Once you find an interesting bill, you can share the information easily via Facebook, Twitter, text message or email. It also tracks votes in Congress, gives committee member listings for all committee and lists upcoming hearings. And if all of those features weren’t exciting enough, you can also create personalized alerts to be notified of activity for any bill. Now, you have no excuse to be caught off-guard when your local post office is renamed!
The applications available to iPhone users aren’t as comprehensive as the “Congress” application for Droid. Sunlight Labs does have a iPhone version of “Congress”, but it only has House and Senate floor updates, Whip notices (as nerdy as I am, I’m not entirely sure I would ever look at Whip notices), hearing information, and miscellaneous Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports and other governmental documents. The application is fantastic if you want to see how a certain bill was scored by the CBO, but less helpful if you want to know basic information, such as who is the at-large Congressman for Montana (Rep. Denny Rehberg, by the way). If you’re looking for a basic Congressional guide, your best bet is the “Congress 411” application. It allows you to search members by Senate, House and location. But, the bill information and video feed seems to be rather outdated, so proceed with caution.
However, iPhone users win overall with the C-SPAN app, which is currently unavailable on the Droid. And with C-SPAN radio, C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3, who needs Congressional directories when you can listen to history in real time?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hey Nation -- How Are You Doing?

This is an interesting question for a day when the stock market dropped another 600 points.  Note to self:  don't open my 401K statements for a year -- just like I did from 2008-2009.  The Brookings Institution has an answer and, shockingly, it's "not well."  There are some really smart people over there who looked at a variety of factors over the last five quarters to assess the state of the nation in terms of a) the general welfare, b) the common defense and c) the blessings of liberty.

If those words sound familiar they should.  They're from the preamble of the Constitution.  What I very much like about this report is the connection between the statistics surrounding current events and what we originally set out to do as a country.

Yeah, I'm not going to lie.  According to these figures the news is not, ummm, great.  But at least we know that if we're all depressed about the state of the nation, there's scientific evidence to back us up.

And, of course, I would not be the Advocacy Guru if I did not point out that there's something YOU can do about it!  Remember that another part of the Constitution (first amendment, one of my favorites) secures to us the freedom of speech.  So speak!  Find out who your legislators are at http://www.congress.org/, attend their townhall meetings this August, get on their Facebook pages, sign up for their Twitter feeds and politely, but firmly, share your views.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Social Congress

All jokes about Anthony Weiner aside, a recent report from the Congressional Management Foundation (http://www.congressfoundation.org/) finds that "most members of Congress have thoroughly integrated social media in to their communications operations, and are using new media tools to gauge public opinion, communicate with constituents and reach new people." 

The findings on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were particularly interesting, with  64% of responding offices finding Facebook to be a somewhat or very useful tool for understanding constituent's views, while only 34% see YouTube as such. 

Yet staff seem to realize that  YouTube is the number two search engine after Google (really, it's true).  A whopping 72% think that YouTube is an important mechanism for communicating their member's view.  Notice the difference:  34% see YouTube as useful for receiving input while 72% see YouTube as useful for delivering messages.  I'm not sure why that is, but it tells me we can be a lot more effective in using this tools to get advocacy messages across to members of Congress.

In addition, I'm curious about how the rise of social media will impact this little thing we call "constituency."  When dealing with plain, old snail mail addresses, legislators and staff know whether the person they are communicating with is a constituent.  Online, it's much more difficult.  One of the first rules of advocacy is to be sure you can demonstrate why you're relevant to your audience -- and for Congress that means being a constituent.  But will social media change this basic tenant of representative democracy?  I'm not sure, but I'll be paying attention, I promise

Other findings suggest that many staff are concerned that their offices do not spend enough time on social media, with younger staffers find social media far more important to the operations than older staff do.  This tells me that the use of social media will only rise as older staff retire and newer staff, with their social savvy, come to Capitol Hill.

What can we take away from this?  Apparently the Internet is here to stay and we avoid it at our peril.  Even if your demographic is older and your first thought is "well, my members won't use social media"," remember that your ultimate audience, legislators and their staff, do.