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Effective Meetings with Legislators and Staff

Relationship or policy meeting?

By Chris Micheli, July 1, 2019 2:20 am

Whether a lobbyist or a constituent, it is important when advocating for your position to have effective meetings with elected or appointed officials, as well as their staff. In broad terms, you should consider some of the factors that may influence elected officials and their staff. For example, personal relationships; your message(s) and constituents are important to them.

Before we get into the specifics of having effective meetings, the reader should be aware of basically two types of meetings with elected or appointed officials and their staff: relationship-building and policy.

Relationship-Building Meetings

Relationship building is an important first step prior to meeting on a policy matter, such as a bill or regulation. What are examples of relationship building?

  • Taking a legislator and his or her staff for a tour of your facility
  • Having a legislator write an article for your organization’s newsletter
  • Write an article on your legislator and post it on your website
  • Host your elected official for a town hall

Policy Meetings

Policy meetings are used to discuss public policy issues, specific bills, or regulations, or seek an official act. What are examples of policy “asks” for elected officials?

  • Introduce a bill
  • Co-author a bill
  • Vote for or against a bill
  • Talking with another legislator about a bill or issue
  • Getting information from or talking with a regulatory agency on your behalf

Prior to the Meeting

Prior to the meeting, you need to schedule the appointment and prepare for your meeting. This will need to occur a few weeks in advance. Also, you need to determine whether the meeting will occur at the Capitol office or the district office.

When contacting an elected official’s office, ask to speak with the scheduler. And be prepared to offer several dates and times that you can meet. Provide a list of individuals who will be attending the meeting and do not be surprised if the scheduler asks you to fax or email a formal meeting request.

Assembly Office Sign. (Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

For legislative meetings, and assuming that you are in Sacramento, then the Capitol office is the appropriate venue. On the other hand, if you cannot go to Sacramento, due to the cost or time constraints, then a meeting is appropriate for the district office. If the Legislature is in session (as they are for over eight months of the year), such a meeting is most likely to occur on a Friday when the legislator is in his or her district.

Prior to the meeting, you need to determine what specifically you are going to ask for. Asking for something specific is one of the key ways to get the attention of an elected official. Making a clear and concise request will help make your meeting more effective.

In addition, before you meet with your elected official, it is important that you take time to learn about the elected official and his or her priorities. Knowing who your elected official is and why you are meeting with him or her is critical. Most of the information you will need is found on the Internet. Some topics to research:

  • What did the official do before getting elected to office?
  • What are his or her policy interests?
  • What was his or her campaign platform?
  • What are the priority issues for his or her district?
  • What is his or her legislative record?
  • What types of bills has the elected official carried?
  • Which legislative committees does he or she sit on?
  • What is his or her political party?
  • Who has been the elected official’s major supporters in past campaigns?

Determine any roles for yourself and other participants. Is everyone from the same organization? Are they from the same industry? If there are multiple persons, you first need to designate a group leader who should open and close the meeting. Then, perhaps, each person can present a key message.

Particularly if there is a group of individuals meeting with the elected official, then it is wise to prepare and practice for your meeting. A short “run-through” of what everyone is prepared to say is helpful. It is important for this group leader to set the tone of the meeting at the outset and ensure the meeting is on-time and progresses so that each individual has the opportunity to speak.

Dress appropriately for the meeting. This is a business meeting and you should dress in business attire.

And be sure to confirm your meeting a day or two in advance. You certainly do not want to travel all the way to the Capitol just to find out that the meeting was cancelled or re-scheduled.

During the Meeting

During the meeting, how should you conduct yourself and the meeting?

Always be polite in your meeting, even if you have hard feelings or are upset about a particular issue. Similarly, if you do not get the response that you desire, make sure that you engage professionally and politely. This meeting may not be successful, but hopefully your next one will be. You do not want to upset the official or the staff when you need to meet with them with your next issue or request.

Always tell the truth and do not mislead or threaten anyone in a legislative office. It will mark the end of your ability to have meetings with officials or their staff.

Do not discuss any political campaigning or contributions in legislative offices and or any way connected to official actions. And do not discuss anything political with legislative staff.

It is important to arrive on time, not too early, but definitely not late. Most of all, be flexible. For example, if the legislative office and full and staff has to hold the meeting in the hallway or another space, do not be fazed. Similarly, if your meeting was scheduled with the elected official, but he or she is unavailable, happily take the meeting with the legislator’s staff. And, if you cannot make the scheduled meeting, be sure to call in advance to cancel.

Personalize the message as much as possible. Particularly if you are a constituent, make sure you explain why you are there, why you are well positioned to deliver the message, and why the official should care about your perspective. By explaining the direct impact of an issue or bill (i.e., personalizing it), you will have a greater impact. You do not need to focus on “facts and figures,” but rather on why you care enough to explain your position to your elected official. If you have a compelling story, tell it.

When you begin your meeting, identify yourself and the organization (if any) you are representing at the meeting. Explain that you are a constituent or whatever connection there is for purposes of the meeting.

Be specific in your request to the elected official. Do you want him or her to vote yes? Vote no? Write a letter? Talk with a colleague? If your request or message is too vague, then the official or staff will likewise be general or vague in their response. To be more effective in your request, you should be specific in that request.

Try not to make more than one request per meeting. If you must bring up more than one request or message, make sure to prioritize them. Also, you may get stuck with the least controversial or easiest item instead of the more difficult request if you make multiple ones.

At the conclusion of the meeting, be sure to leave a one-pager or “leave behind” with the official and make sure his or her staff gets the same information. These materials need to explain your issue and what your message is. Be sure to include contact information with these materials in case anyone has follow-up questions.

After the Meeting

After the meeting, you should send a quick note thanking the legislator and/or his or her staff for taking the time to meet with you. This will also provide an opportunity for you to follow-up to reiterate your message, or your request, or to just let them know you can be a resource. And be sure to acknowledge any position the legislator has stated.

Follow-up is critical, especially because legislative meetings are often quick. Be patient for any response from the office. It also allows you to keep in touch after your meeting. Do not “overstay your welcome” and become obnoxious. But every few months if there are ongoing issues is appropriate.

Finally, be a resource to the elected official and his or her staff. For example, you may not be able to provide all of the information you know about an issue in your short meeting at the Capitol or district office of the official. So, you want to make sure they understand your experience and expertise, and that you can be a resource in the future. If you are viewed as an expert in your field, then the legislator and his or her staff are more likely to ask questions and rely upon your expertise and experience.

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