Four Things to do Before You Lobby Your Lawmaker (Advocacy Planning)
Published August 15, 2018 / Updated August 7, 2020

Four Things to do Before You Lobby Your Lawmaker (Advocacy Planning)

by Stefanie Coxe

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Lobbying your elected officials is more than picking up the phone and leaving a message with an intern. If you want your ask to rise to the top of the advocacy pile take these four critical advocacy planning steps before you lobby your elected official.

  1. Do your homework

When I was in my early twenties, I went to D.C. for a conference along with a group from my community. Before we left, some members of the organization asked us to advocate for specific budget priorities with our Member of Congress and Senators.

When it came time to meet with our Congressman, each of us got an issue on the list to ask for. Well, I was completely overwhelmed at that point and didn’t bother doing any homework on what it was I was asking for. I just went in with my talking points.

Our Congressman sat down at a small table in his office with us and when my turn to make an ask came up, using my notes, I asked him to support funding for a juvenile diversion program. I went on for a moment about how important it was. Slowly, a smile came across his face. Eventually, he said, of course, he’d be happy to. Then he asked me, “do you know who started that program”? Clueless, I shook my head. He smiled again and said, “me, when I was district attorney”.

Let me tell you, I turned several shades of red. It’s pretty embarrassing to ask someone who championed an issue to support it. Now, the Congressman was great and I’m sure the fact I was so young factored into his assessment of my credibility.

But it did damage my credibility. It made me look inexperienced and clueless — because I was! That could have been so easily avoided, had I taken a few easy steps. Take the time to research if your representative the lead sponsor of the earmark you’re pushing. Is she on the record in the newspaper opposing the bill you’re meeting on? Is she a well-known champion of it?

No matter how obscure the issue, chances are there’s an advocacy organization professionally lobbying on it which can help you with your advocacy planning. Maybe you’re on their e-blast list and already calling at their behest. Regardless, they should have this information at their fingertips. If they don’t it may be a sign they’re not effective.

2. Decide what the Specific Ask is

Next, decide what specifically you’re going to ask your lawmaker to do. Now you might be saying to yourself, “That’s obvious! Support or oppose House Resolution 1234”.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for a politician to wriggle out of a support/oppose ask.

What if your bill never makes it to the House floor? In that case, your Member of Congress may never have a chance to support or oppose the bill. They can say, “oh yes, I supported HR 1234”, but what does that actually mean?

If you don’t make a specific ask, you have no metric for measuring your lawmaker’s actions. Support or oppose is vague and amorphous.

I encourage you to reach out to an advocacy organization that specializes in this issue and get their advice about what would be most helpful. It may mean asking your lawmaker to:

  • Co-sponsor a bill
  • Write/or sign onto a letter to the Committee chairman and Ranking member
  • Personally speak to the decision-maker
  • Sign onto an amendment

3. Use a pitch

Consider what you’ll say when you meet with your elected official or call their office. What will make them most likely to respond positively? Is saying “sign onto Sen. Smith’s letter to Chairman Doe” enough? No. You still haven’t raised the level of importance for them. You need a pitch.

Remember, they have thousands, even millions of other constituents. What’s going to make you and this particular ask rise to the top of the pile?

First, think about how many other people in their district are impacted by this issue. There’s strength in numbers.

Will this benefit or harm them? Use common sense, but where you can, add statistics. Contact your area community foundation or look on the US Census website for data. Your ask will be more powerful if you say, “look, Senator, you’ve got 2,000 workers in your district who would be negatively impacted by this.”

Next, think about it from the old sales line, “what’s in it for me”. This is usually directly linked to the local statistics. If a politician or their staff realize that they could be looking at a lot of unemployed voters in their district, alarm bells are going to go off. How could this impact their chances at re-election? Could someone do a tv ad saying their vote costed hundreds of jobs?

Lastly, consider the power of storytelling in your advocacy planning. When I worked for a Member of Congress, he supported local community health centers. But it wasn’t until he went on a tour of one of them and met actual constituents impacted by the center and heard their story that he became a true champion. After that, he was telling everyone he met — in Congress and in the District — about what good work this health center was doing and why funding was so critical.

Putting a human face to an issue dramatically increases your ability to sway an elected official. You’re touching their humanness through storytelling. Storytelling is one of the things that makes a politician override the political calculus. Even if something is going to cost him politically — either in DC or in the District — if he is truly moved and convinced he’s doing the right thing for his district, he’ll take the risk.

Another reason storytelling and local statistics are so important to your advocacy planning is because they differentiate you from other calls on the same subject. When an action alert goes out from a national organization, how many times that day do you think aides have heard the same 5 talking points? But hearing a local story — why this issue matters to you personally — can make all the difference.

4. Determine How You’ll Communicate Your Ask

Last, figure out how you’ll lobby your elected official. (Click here for a chart of most to least effective communication methods.) Having a two-way communication and the ability to show your investment is extremely important in determining effectiveness. Communications tactics which don’t allow those things are less effective.

Obviously to get noticed, identifying yourself as a constituent is critical. But also consider what will show your investment as an engaged voter. Then think about what’s going to allow you to have that back and forth to make your case. And finally, there’s no substitute in relationship-building and persuasion for having someone look you in the eye. It makes it a lot harder to say no. At the very least, it makes them a bit more willing to try to do something for you.

Completing the Four Things to do Before You Lobby Your Lawmaker (Advocacy Planning) will ensure your ask goes smoothly and you raise the level of credibility and importance of your ask over others’. Next time you’ll learn the six steps to lobbying of your elected official.

This was originally posted on the Nexus Werx LLC — Learn to Lobby Blog.

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Stefanie Coxe is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company offering the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products including Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and a Community Monitoring Program for membership-based organizations. Sign up for her e-newsletter to get tips on training and mobilizing members and activists. And for individual activists, learn how to build your own personal activism plan (just like a lobbyist) with the online course:

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