Interview: How Small Businesses Can Lobby Government

Amy Handlin knows a thing or two about local politics. But the New Jersey assemblywoman, who previously served more than 15 years on the county legislature and was a deputy mayor before that, realized there were no resources available for small businesses to lobby their local politicians. So she wrote Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government.

The book is a step-by-step guide designed to “give small business people the confidence they need to just get out there and start doing things,” Handlin said in our interview. “This is not rocket science. It’s not easy, it takes practice and effort, but so does every other business activity.”

I asked Handlin more about her book and small-business lobbying in general. Here’s what she had to share.

BP: You’ve said the single biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is not even trying to get to know legislators and people at city hall. You’ve also said that if you go and talk to them, you won’t be unwelcome. Where and how often should small business people schedule in time to meet the politicians who might be helping them in the future?

There’s no rigid rule. The opportunities will vary from place to place and situation to situation.

If you want to get to know your local official, you can be alert for opportunities to meet them at community events that you might be attending anyway. Or you can invite them to come and meet you and small other small business people at your place of business, or perhaps join you and a few others and have a cup of coffee. The vast majority of local officials are always happy to do that.

There may be specific programs provided to the community by the local officials like job fairs, or service programs that you can attend. Even if you don’t need the particular type of information being offered, it’s still useful; the mayor and the council members are there and you can go and introduce yourself and begin to build a relationship.

The first step in a relationship is to do something for yourself. Introduce yourself. Shaking hands with the people that make the decisions will have a huge impact on whether you make a profit or not. You know, the local tax and regulatory decisions, various kinds of property maintenance codes and so forth.

BP: Do different issues have different lobbying success rates, or does it depend on the politician?

It depends on the particulars of the issue. What I can say for sure is that you will always fail if you never even try. So if you make no effort of any kind to get to know and to lobby your local and state officials, and to offer them your point of view, as appropriate, because it’s not only fighting to get something, if you make no effort in that direction, then you have a 100% chance of failing to influence the decisions they make.

I tell people they must start somewhere. They must believe in the power of their own voice and advocacy. Anyone who can run a business can lobby on their own behalf.

BP: How much should time, energy, and staff should a small business allot for a small business lobbying effort?

Well, the whole reason why small business people need to learn to do this themselves is that the vast majority cannot afford to hire a lobbyist, or to allocate staff time. They can’t take the staff away from their regular tasks and become in house lobbyists. I strike from that assumption. The money isn’t available.

So then it does become a question of time. Yes, it’s true that you do need to invest some modest amount of time. Certainly on a monthly basis, perhaps on a weekly basis, to learn about you what your local and state government is doing through the media or a website, to meeting informally with those individuals. Sometimes you even meet formally with them depending on your situation.

You may need to compose emails, make phone calls, or set up meetings. The point that I note is the time you invest now will serve you and pay off very handsomely because it will save you a good deal of time that would be wasted when you have a problem.

If you don’t invest the time to do these things when you don’t have a problem, that means that when you do, you will need to scramble to figure out what doors to knock on, who does what, what to say to those people, how to go about it, what communication tool to use, and so on and so forth. So you’re cheating yourself if you decide that you will devote zero time until you’re in a crisis. Again, when you are in a crisis, you will waste a tremendous amount of time trying to deal with it.

BP: Anything else you’d like to share?

There are three building blocks of advocacy that anyone can use at any level. Including at the congressional level on Capitol Hill. The building blocks I talk about are target, tools, and tactics.

Target means identifying and connecting with the person who is in the best position to help you. The right target is as important as the right sales prospect. It’s the same principle with advocacy and sales. If you target everyone, you target no one.

The second is tools. Tools means that you have to select the communication that is most appropriate to your pick. Every business person knows that different marketing tools are called for in different situations. In the same way, you need to know when to call, when to send an email, when to arrange a personal meeting, or do nothing.

Tactics means that you need to shape a message that will get attention and that will get you serious consideration because the advocacy marketplace like the advertising marketplace is very competitive. You need to be able to craft a compelling message.

I’ll give you a simple example of what can happen. Again, this is a very simple, concrete, area. In my book, I talk about a woman in Salt Lake City, Utah, who started a little cupcake bakery. She did what she felt were all the right things. She checked boxes on every city document.

A couple of weeks before she was ready to open, a city official turned up on her door to tell her she was not in compliance with one of the regulations for a commercial bakery. He said “You have to pay $40,000 to pay for a grease trap in the street.”

That was probably more than this young woman had in her bank account . So she found some folks who would help her develop a lobbying effort, other small business people in the area who had experience doing this. She did research, she met with officials. It didn’t happen overnight, but in the end, the city relented and they struck a compromise.

She still had to have a grease trap, but in her case she was allowed to put it in her own kitchen as long as it was accessible by the city. It was a very good result for everyone. For her, as well as the city.

So those kind of things happen every day. They don’t happen overnight, and it took her a considerable amount of time and effort. She was able to get lobbying advice from others who had experiences with those officials.

It’s important to reach out and find others who can tell you what worked and what didn’t work with the same official that you need to target. So, when we talk about lobbying, we’re not only talking about the big issues of national significance that are settled on Capitol Hill, we’re also talking about the day to day decisions that are made city halls and state houses around America. Again, that’s where small business people have their biggest and best opportunity to make a difference.

BP: I’m sort of flabbergasted that this information hasn’t been out there before. It seems so intuitive. I think you’re right, though. People are scared of local governments, so nobody does anything.

Either intimidated or simply confused. Local government takes some time to figure it out, and you need a road map of how it’s going to work the best. It isn’t necessarily easy to wade through the jungle of government. Again, it takes some time, some patience, and some persistence. But if you can run a business, you can do it.

If people would like to reach me with questions you can give them my email. It’s called beyourownlobbyist (AT) gmail (DOT) com.


Official bio: 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, and her top legislative priorities have been ethics and open government. She holds a BA from Harvard, an MBA from Columbia, and a PhD from New York University’s Stern School of Business.