When most of us think about marketing, we focus on reaching customers. We work to get our story out in front of the public and make the case that our business is best suited to provide the “solution” for their needs. No matter how large or small our companies, we all recognize that marketing to customers is a necessary part of doing business.
But there’s another audience, every bit as important, that many of us overlook. This group often has more to say than any other about what determines our success or failure. Who are they? Policymakers—state and federal legislators who, knowingly or not, regularly make decisions that run right to our doorsteps.
Marketing vs. Lobbying
Some will say that outreach to these folks isn’t marketing, it’s lobbying. But communicating with lawmakers doesn’t always have to be about your support of or opposition to a policy. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Think about it: Your organization is at a distinct disadvantage if, in the heat of a debate, you’re making eye contact for the first time with a legislator who soon will be voting on an issue that could change the way you operate.
When legislation is proposed, even well-staffed congressional offices don’t have the resources to research all its ramifications thoroughly. State legislators who normally operate with little beyond a legislative aide are even more limited. That’s why proactively “marketing” your business to policymakers is so important. It’s your chance to explain what factors matter to your success, how your company benefits local constituents, and why certain policies enhance or impede your efforts to grow and create jobs—long before any potentially damaging legislation is introduced.
Form Your Team
How do you get out in front of policymaker communications? The first step is identifying your resources—the team to deliver your story. Large companies generally have staff dedicated to reaching out to elected officials. While often criticized, these companies recognize the value of maintaining lines of communication with policymakers.
Smaller companies may look for this kind of assistance from business organizations like chambers of commerce or industry trade groups. This approach is effective, but only with your individual, ongoing involvement. Do your research to find out who does the best job representing your business sector, then pay your dues, get to know the staff and get involved.
Last spring, I represented the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce before the Illinois General Assembly. The big issue for the business community was reforming the workers’ compensation system. A number of companies committed the time and energy to share their stories because they recognized the impact public policy can have on their businesses. Lawmakers, familiar with many of these chamber members from past efforts, welcomed their input.
You can also contract with outside vendors to help with your outreach. Several years ago, for example, I helped a startup offering a unique raw feed stock that delivered economic and environmental benefits across a number of sectors. Policymakers were focused on promoting use of the end product, but weren’t familiar with this company’s specific feed stock.
What’s In It for Them?
That brings me to a second critical step: tailoring your message to the audience. One mistake I’ve seen too often is business leaders trying to take a feature-and-benefit product story—one that works well with customers—to a group of legislators. Nine times out of 10, it fails. Policymakers need to know what’s in it for them. So think like someone trying to get elected. How does your business or initiative create jobs, enhance tax revenues, drive innovation, increase exports, help the environment or generate economic growth? Then tell your story from that perspective.
With the startup mentioned above, the key was translating a highly technical story into a politically friendly one. Simple graphics explained how the feed stock worked, while a series of quick-read communications hit on the economic and environmental benefits. Most important was an introductory round of meetings in Washington DC, allowing key legislators, committee staff and regulatory authorities to hear the story from an expert firsthand. Our goal wasn’t to lobby these policymakers to advocate a position—it was simply to market this startup’s ability to meet a recognized need with a less expensive, more effective solution.
The Time Is Now
In terms of timing your outreach, there’s no better time than the present. Political campaigns present a good opportunity because candidates usually are interested in coming to the table, especially if you have employees who might vote for them. So invite candidates to your facility and explain how external factors like environmental changes, workforce rules and taxes affect your business and the jobs you provide.
Looking back on my corporate experiences, we never assumed that newly elected officials were familiar with our company. If we didn’t introduce ourselves during the campaign, we made sure new legislators and their staffs knew soon after taking office what was important to our success—and that of our employees.
Once you’ve made contact, stay in touch. It’s not necessary to be in phone or email contact every week or even every month, but make sure it’s often enough your legislator recognizes your name.
Let’s Get to Work
I agree with those who assert that government doesn’t create jobs. Policymakers do, however, play a major role in establishing a climate for job creation. For Illinois companies, economic conditions over the past three years and our state’s public policy leadership have demonstrated how this works—or perhaps, how it doesn’t.
As the business community, we need to do a better job of telling our stories to policymakers about what’s important to our success and, with it, economic growth and job creation for the people in our area. This election season is the time to start, if you haven’t already—or to step it up, if you’re already active. And in an age of increasing electronic communications, this is one conversation best held face-to-face. iBi
Doug Crew is a partner in Brown and Crew Public Affairs Strategies
and past governmental affairs manager at Caterpillar Inc.