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Smart Answers

Turning Small Business Owners into Lobbyists

Amy H. Handlin has a unique perspective as both a marketing professor and a New Jersey state assemblywoman. In her three terms in state office, Handlin has seen small business owners become effective advocates with government, and she has seen them miss opportunities. In her new book, Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government (Praeger, 2010), she outlines some dos and don'ts. Handlin spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: Do small business owners contact you frequently?

Yes. The thing I've learned is that, while all businesses are powerfully affected by government, small businesses are particularly vulnerable. If you're a large company, the size and diversity of your operations will dilute the impact of a county sales tax or a town building restriction. But for many small businesses, learning to lobby government is a survival skill.

Do many of them fail to develop that skill?

Some are intimidated by the trappings of power—the fancy titles and gold domes. Others don't know where to begin or don't believe their advocacy will serve a purpose. There's a pervasive myth that you can't fight city hall, and it's simply not true. But lobbying needs to be done strategically. There's a difference between purposeless venting and a thoughtful move to influence government. But you can get heard and taken seriously with a reasonable amount of time and energy.

Do most entrepreneurs contact their representatives only in a crisis?

Overwhelmingly, which is a shame. It is a very low-risk, high-return investment to develop relationships with officials before you have a problem.

What's the right way to go about making those relationships?

You want to target the right person, select the right communication tools with which to approach them, and shape a message that will get their attention.

First, you have to know who is in a position to influence your business and in which ways. That's a matter of research. In the same way you wouldn't introduce a new product without researching the market, you shouldn't try to get involved in the advocacy business without researching who does what in state and local government and in the agencies, authorities, boards, and commissions that make important decisions.

What do you do once you've got the appropriate contacts?

Get out from behind your computer. It's easy to go to a regularly scheduled town hall or attend one of the outreach events that local and state government officials hold for their constituents. Research the interests and priorities of these officials and identify opportunities to mingle with them in a low-key, informal setting. You might learn that the mayor of your town is an environmentalist who always goes to beach cleanups. Why not go yourself and take the opportunity to talk about your company?

What's the best way to contact a government representative if you have an issue with your business?

In many, many cases, the best way to go is in writing, because written words have staying power. Often it's good to write an e-mail or prepare written testimony you can send in as a comment on a regulatory action or deliver at a public hearing. There are cases when postal mail is the best way to get someone's attention, partly because it's becoming quite rare. It's also best when you need to attach documents or photographs to make your case.

Of course, phone calls are necessary in situations where there's time urgency. But phone calls are of limited value if you have a lot of information to convey or need to share documents.

When you call, won't you risk getting shunted aside to talk to an aide?

Hopefully, you'll already have a relationship and that will help. But many legislators and administrative officials have certain staff dedicated to trouble-shooting certain areas. If your problem is with trash removal, it makes perfect sense to talk to a staff person who has expertise in your particular neighborhood. If you do need to get to the top decision maker, call and ask for an appointment and request an e-mail confirmation as a follow up.

What do you mean when you say, "shape the message" you're delivering?

You need to craft a compelling message in tune with the mind set of your target. Let's say your side street has inadequate lighting compared with the main street. This is an issue you can frame as a matter of public safety, not private profit. It is not the job of the official to make sure you can open your store at later hours and make more money. But it is her job to keep the streets safe for everyone.

Can you give some dos and don'ts for crisis communication?

If you already have a connection with someone in the appropriate level of government, you can usually get that person in a hurry. If you've never done the research, try to identify the decision maker who seems likely to be in charge of your issue. If you're not sure, start at the top.

The absolute worst thing you can do is scream, demand what you want done immediately, or yell obscenities. You can never scare officials into helping you, but people try all the time. Be very business-like, professional, and concise about your problem and why it's an emergency. Offer to stay on the line. Or get in your car and go to city hall and stand or sit there until you've connected with whomever is in a position to solve the problem.

That's the kind of thing people feel hesitant about, but they shouldn't. Taxpayers pay the salaries of every single government official. We work for the small business owners and the citizens. You are the boss, so you have every right to do what needs to be done.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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