10 Things Your Lobbyist May Not Tell (Or Ask) You – But Should
In their rush to get issues or projects before Congress and federal agencies, lobbyists and their clients sometimes overlook important details of their working relationship, which may later adversely impact their advocacy efforts and compatibility to keep working together.
Throughout my career, I have learned what clients and lobbyists must understand and address with one another before they start a lobbying campaign together.
Here are 10 things to consider before you hit the halls of Congress:
1. Get a signed agreement outlining the fees, expenses, length of engagement and scope of work:
This protects all parties in the event of misunderstandings or lapses of memory on the assignment and terms of engagement. I adhere to the “no surprises rule.”
2. Identify clear expectations for success:
I always ask a prospective client what success looks like to them because that is what matters most.
3. Get a feel for the workload of the lobbyist or lobbying team:
It is the nature of any lobbying firm to want more business, no matter how good billings are and regardless of staffing deficiencies. The busiest and most productive consultants are in high demand, and smart clients ask how many other clients their principal lobbyist is handling to ensure that their issues do not wind up at the bottom of the priority list.
4. Identify potential conflicts of the lobbyist and firm:
Transparency and open dialogue are the best ways to resolve potential or real conflicts. Setting up firewalls or separating competing lobbying teams within a single firm or agency rarely seems to work.
5. Spot consequences of certain actions in advance:
Clients need to know how lobbying on its own, or certain lobbying tactics, could impact other aspects of their business and their brand.
Before executing, the lobbying team needs to clearly communicate to the client the strategies and tactics it intends to implement. This discussion should be had before the strategy is unleashed, not after the damage has been done.
6. Understand the time commitment required by the client and organization:
Clients new to lobbying don’t fully appreciate the amount of time they will need to spend in D.C. and in state capitals. You don’t just set a lobbyist loose while your organization sits back and waits for the results. Evaluate the time and cost of travel, lodging, meals, sponsorships, fundraising and other aspects of advocacy before you embark.
This can avoid resentment and dissension later.
7. Come to an agreement on how progress will be reported:
Because many of the meetings, briefings, committee hearings and other interactions that spur an issue along occur when the client is not in town, it’s imperative to provide regular reporting and analysis on new developments and their impact on overall progress.
Periodic calls, in-person meetings and memos help build confidence and trust that both client and advocate are on the same page throughout the campaign.
8. Decide whether fundraising participation will be a condition of success:
The client organization should decide if it’s going to raise money on behalf of lawmakers as part of the lobbying campaign. Attending and hosting political fundraising events can be a key element of a long-term lobbying strategy (in my experience, members of Congress have come to expect fundraising to go hand-in-hand with lobbying efforts).
To be clear, writing checks or collecting money for candidates does not ensure success, and the costs to the organization can quickly add up, but it is a factor.
9. Understand that the disclosure and compliance rules associated with lobbying, and follow them:
Clients are often surprised to learn, in the wake of their lobbying campaign, that lobbying is a public act.
Lobbying firms must comply with federal disclosure requirements – these disclosures become public record and are regularly examined by the media.
Failure to comply on behalf of lobbying firms is not a wise option, and clients should understand the potential for media scrutiny.
10. Agree on the conditions to mutually end the agreement:
If a client of mine is not happy for whatever reason, I want there to be a professional and fair end to our agreement that keeps our relationship intact.
I have seen firms require clients to stay in an unhealthy contract even after results can no longer be achieved. I disagree with this approach. Forcing the client’s hand this way will only ensure that they switch to another lobbyist as soon as possible. Don’t sacrifice a long-term relationship for a short-term gain.
The best way to begin a successful lobbyist-client relationship is to agree on these critical business items at the outset. When you do that, the working relationship is better, the outcomes are better, and lobbyists get to help their clients advance their issues.
It’s definitely worth taking a step back from your pressing policy issues to review and get everyone on board and of one mind.
Mike Fulton directs the Washington, D.C. office of the Asher Agency (www.asheragency.com) and teaches Public Affairs IMC 693S at the master’s level for West Virginia University’s Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program.
Connect with Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org; @hillrat1156 or on LinkedIn.