Big corporations may have deeper pockets to lobby government officials or agencies, but smaller manufacturers shouldn't let the lack of similarly sized purse strings translate to a lack of lobbying might. Indeed, learning how to influence government officials, be they local, state or federal, is simply smart business.
That's the advice of Amy H. Handlin, deputy minority leader in the New Jersey General Assembly. "Advocacy can make a difference," she says. It is about opening doors, getting to know decision-makers and even sharing valuable perspectives that can translate into better government policies, the assemblywoman says. And small manufacturers can be effective lobbyists. "If they can run a business, they certainly can lobby effectively," she says. Like any other business skill, however, lobbying must be approached in a business-like way. "A sloppy, slapdash approach won't get you the results you hope for," she says.
Yet, you will certainly fail to be heard if you never try, she says. And that's a big mistake made by smaller enterprises. Handlin notes that there is always competition in the advocacy marketplace. If a business doesn't enter that space, others will and their views may be in direct conflict, she says.
"[Advocacy] is never a static environment," she says. There are many voices, and "you want one of those voices to be yours."
For manufacturers that have not engaged in advocacy efforts, Handlin suggests the local level as a logical starting place. Become familiar with the structure of local and state governments. Handlin says the more a small business understands how government works, the more it can hone in on the right people or agencies, and the less time that is wasted. She notes that lobbying also relies on a variety of tools, including in-person meetings, e-mail and telephone calls. Which tool is the correct tool to employ in a given circumstance depends on the effect the businessperson is trying to achieve.
Handlin also outlines several classic mistakes beginners make in their lobbying efforts. They include:
• Choosing the wrong level of government. Make sure you take your issue to the right level of government for the most impact. Follow the money and check documents related to your issue for insights about who handles it.
• Avoiding personal contact with officials. Get to know your officials before you need help. Waiting until you are under pressure is likely to lead to mistakes.
• Limiting your research. Don't be satisfied with data you can skim from official websites. Go to public meetings, research media archives, seek other avenues of information. And don't limit information gathering to a single person or agency.
Finally, be prepared to invest some time, and don't expect to win every time, Handlin says.