Seven Lobbying Mistakes Small Businesses Make – and What to Do Instead

By Amy H. Handlin
Adapted from the new book “Be Your Own Lobbyist”

For small businesses, learning how to influence state and local government is a smart management strategy–but it’s also an essential survival skill. Want to change a local ordinance so you can expand your facility or parking? Looking to land a peachy state contract? Trying to fight a local polluter who is negatively impacting your business? Then you need to learn how to be your own business advocate.

The good news is that you don’t have to hire a pricey professional lobbyist. But you do need to learn some basics and avoid the following classic beginner mistakes:

Mistake #1: Choosing the wrong level of government. To determine whether you should target a local, state, or federal official or agency, determine where your issue has the most concentrated impact. Then follow the money trail–who collects the revenues, and for what. Finally, check every document related to your issue and look for official stamps and seals for clues as to who handles it.

Mistake #2: Limiting your research. Dig beneath the surface of official websites. Use media archives, political literature, blogs, and Freedom of Information requests. Go to public meetings. And don’t limit your information gathering to just one target agency or official.

Mistake #3: Avoiding personal contact with officials. Get to know officials when you don’t need their specific help–particularly at informal affairs. Don’t hesitate to initiate an informal conversation. Cultivate relationships with their staff too.

Mistake #4: Having a weak or limited coalition. Be creative when looking for allies, and ask other businesses with complementary concerns to reach out to others as well. Even if you think you’re all on the same page, spend time and energy educating all coalition members on the issues. Have energetic and focused leaders who can keep members motivated. Define your goals as broadly as possible so everyone feels included and invested.

Mistake #5: Making written communication faux pas. Double check correct name spellings and titles. Provide sources for all data. Be concrete and specific. Research relevant requirements, such as time limits or numbers of signatures. Make your communication personalized. Don’t overuse rhetoric. Don’t be discourteous.

Mistake #6: Muffing verbal communication opportunities. In phone calls, in face-to-face meetings, or public forums such as rallies or community meetings, humanize your story with examples. Use props or visual aids. Bring attention to who is supporting you. Research, review, and rehearse. Don’t drop names, be unprepared, be overly familiar or jocular, or use silly gimmicks. Avoid being long-winded, accusatory, or impatient.

Mistake #7: Missing messaging opportunities. Don’t confuse a slogan with a message. Don’t exaggerate the facts. Once you develop a well-framed, fact-based message, stick to it and get everyone working with you to do the same so one consistent message comes across. Don’t assume your target official or agency “gets” it. Take time to educate them on the issue. Show them that this action affects more than just you. Avoid using jargon, vague references, or an uninformed spokesperson.

Amy H. Handlin PhD is deputy minority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly and associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Her experience in public office spans 20 years and multiple levels of state and local government. She holds a BA from Harvard, an MBA from Columbia, and a PhD from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Her comprehensive new guidebook is Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government (Praeger, 2010, $44.95).

Image by jean-louis zimmermann.