Brush Up Your Skills with this How-to Guide for Talking with Policymakers.
As the population grows each year, the agriculture industry is faced with the difficult task of meeting the demand for more food, fiber and fuel. Working with policymakers is critical to ensuring the future of the industry.
“It’s important to be active in the process,” says Pat Miller, director of state affairs for the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). “This is how we address issues and solve problems. Every citizen needs to be a part of that community.”
ASTA is hosting a Storm the Hill event as part of its Annual Convention, held June 17-20 in Washington D.C.
Jane DeMarchi, ASTA vice president of government affairs, says the event is great for first-timers or seasoned advocates. The association provides talking points and handouts. “It’s a terrific opportunity,” she says. “It’s great to go into a meeting with others who share your vision. It strengthens the message.”
When you meet with a legislator, experts agree it’s important to remember the following tips:
1. Be prepared.
Spend some time before the meeting to ensure you know the information you’re presenting. “Have the information ready to go; you want to be respectful of their time,” says John Latham, president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, Inc., in Alexander, Iowa. Latham also serves as an ASTA regional vice president and chairman of the Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee and has many years of experience working with policymakers.
2. Make a connection.
“It’s not just about the hard facts,” Latham says. “You need to tell your story.” It’s easier to make an impression on someone if you have something in common. DeMarchi says even “if you only have a few minutes, build yourself up as a source of information they can return to in the future.” She suggests questions about hometowns, colleges and past industry experience to find a connection.
3. Be brief.
Now isn’t the time for long introductions and lots of specific details. “On the hill, things change really fast, so be flexible and have your elevator speech down,” Latham says.
Most of the time, meetings on Capitol Hill last between 15 and 20 minutes. Meetings with a government official can last 45 minutes. “After about 20 minutes, you’ll start to lose some attention,” Miller says.
You also shouldn’t try to cover all the issues in one meeting. It’s best to choose two or three key topics.
4. Ask questions.
You want to leave openings in your conversation for questions and discussion. This allows you to see exactly what each senator or representative is most interested in.
“Make sure you aren’t just repeating a speech. Let the meeting be a conversation,” Latham says.
5. Follow up effectively.
“One visit is good, but there is follow-up involved,” Miller adds. “Always send a thank you note, even if just by email. You want them to remember your meeting for the next time an issue comes up.” Leaving behind information is a good strategy, but keep it brief. “Don’t hand them a five-page document,” he says.
Miller also recommends getting to know any local staff and checking in every few months.
Keeping the above to-dos in mind will help to ensure that you have successful meetings when on Capitol Hill or even when meeting with your state policymakers. While there are many items to remember, there are also a couple things to avoid at these meetings:
1. Don’t be intimidated.
“The most important thing is to remember they are just people,” Miller says. “They are your neighbors, and they want to see you as much as you want to see them.” He encourages first-time advocates to keep in mind that legislators are in office because of, and for, you. “They are there to listen to you, and they are always looking for good information,” Miller adds.
2. Don’t take disagreement personally.
If you’re speaking with someone who doesn’t share your ideas, it’s best to make your point calmly and succinctly and then move on.
“Never threaten or demand,” Miller says. “It’s okay to agree to disagree.”
3. Don’t ramble.
DeMarchi says it’s important to be direct and not hint around at what you want. “Make the sale,” she says. “If there’s a specific ask for your company or organization, make sure you ask it. Be direct. The worst thing that can happen is that they’ll say no.”
4. Don’t assume that everyone is an expert.
Remember, you know more about the issue than the politician you’re meeting with. Also, you might not meet directly with the congressman or woman, and some staffers could be inexperienced.
“Sometimes you have to give them a little background information about the issue and where you’re coming from, but they are interested and willing to learn,” Latham says.
At the state level, you’re more likely to get a meeting with the legislator, but Miller says speaking with staff is just as beneficial. “I never have reservations about speaking to a staffer,” he says. “They are very competent.”
5. Don’t have unreasonable expectations.
It’s rare you’ll get a firm commitment, and that’s okay. Most legislation takes years to complete.
“The most important thing that can come from a meeting like this is to become a reputable source of information,” DeMarchi says. “You want to develop an ongoing partnership.”
The exact strategy for speaking with state and national policymakers differs slightly depending on the situation. For example, your attitude and actions during a pre-arranged meeting on Capitol Hill will be much different than if you happen to catch a few minutes with a senator at a coffee shop or fundraising event.
“In a casual situation, the best thing you can do is ask questions and try and make that personal connection,” Latham says.
No matter the environment, honesty and professionalism are key. It is also important to choose topics that impact you directly, and that you are passionate and knowledgeable about.
Some of the biggest issues currently facing the industry include the GMO labeling bill, international trade, intellectual property rights, as well as conservation programs and concerns about the health of pollinators.
Latham says now is the time to get involved. “It’s probably more important now than ever for all of us in the seed industry
to tell our story, because if we don’t, the opposition will,” Latham explains.