Lobbying 101 Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Deregulation, taxpayer services, health care reform ... The list goes on and on. Ohio’s legislature is examining a slew of bills that, in the end, could directly affect your business.

Instead of sitting back and letting the tide take you astray, you could play an active role in developing and supporting public policy.

How?

Insiders shared tips this spring at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting and Legislative Conference.

With the swell of lobbyists — more than 2,000 — and term limits, the job won’t be easy, they say. But there are ways to make inroads.

E.J. Thomas, who served eight terms in the legislature for a district in North Columbus, says you’ll need to present your view succinctly.

“You need a bullet-proof argument,” says Thomas.

To present one, he suggests getting the facts that support your side — and your opposition’s. Doing so will help you gain the trust of legislators who will see you as a knowledgeable source.

“Present the issue so you don’t kill the other side but so you show your advantage,” says Thomas, who is CEO of Groundswell, a Columbus-based public affairs and issues management firm.

Another tip from Thomas: Be there. Don’t just send a pile of form letters signed by fellow business owners. Human nature triggers response, he says.

“Qualities we all respond well to will help you,” he says, noting the person representing your cause must come across as genuine, honest, credible, fair and intelligent.

“This is not the Jerry Springer show, and those tactics are not going to work,” he says.

Amy Showalter, president of The Showalter Group in Columbus, which provides grassroots lobbying consultation services, offers a textbook version of how to organize for impact:

Be a storyteller.

Find out how certain legislation will personally affect a business owner or an employee. If you hear such stories, save them in a file.

“Stories inspire people,” Showalter says. “They put a face on it.”

Be customer sensitive.

Your customers in a grassroots lobbying effort are your employees or others who also support your cause. Make sure you know what matters to them.

Help your friends.

“Make sure people that are like-minded are voters,” she says.

The National Rifle Association is particularly good at this, even signing up to help with voter registration, she says.

Recruit people.

“Don’t say you’re too busy,” Showalter says. “Call 10 to 20 people to ask if they can help get other people involved.”

Have procedures.

Keep it simple, but know, for example, what you’re going to do if the Ohio Chamber calls asking for people to support an issue, says Showalter, a former civic action program manager for Nationwide, where she trained and motivated employees to be advocates for the company when contacting legislators.

She recites a quote she heard from Nationwide head Dimon McFerson: “Government is an organized process. How can we deal with it if we don’t have something in place to deal with it?”

Set goals.

You want to win on the issue, but you need to concentrate on individual tasks to do so. Send 10 letters to fellow supporters. Put a notice in paycheck envelopes to communicate the issue to your employees.

Be a motivator.

Show excitement for your side of the story.

“If you can’t, find somebody to carry the message for you and be the evangelist,” Showalter says. “People follow a person rather than a message or an association or an organization.”

See the results.

Tell your supporters what happens after they write letters on an issue. They’re more apt to help you if they know their input affects the process.

Finally, Showalter quotes Ernest Hemingway: “Never mistake motion for action.”

“There is a lot of busywork,” she says, “but is it really achieving your goals?”

Putting words into action

Several local business executives have already taken steps to increase their political involvement.

Ohio Chamber directors elected this spring are Charles L. Slater, vice president and general manager, Ohio Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Mason; Alan M. Hooker, president and CEO, The Community Bank, Lancaster; C. Thomas Harvie, senior vice president and general counsel, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Akron; and Raymond L. Byers Jr., regional governmental affairs manager, Ohio Valley region, Ford Motor Co., Columbus.

How to reach: Ohio Chamber of Commerce, 228-4201, www.ohiochamber.com; E.J. Thomas, Groundswell, 324-0850, www.groundswellgroup.com; Amy Showalter, The Showalter Group, 781-1300, www.showaltergroup.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN.