Lobbying for Scientists: Interview with Stephanie Vance, Part 2

15 October 2013 by Marc Kuchner, posted in Policy and Policymakers

Last week, I posted the first half of my interview with advocacy expert Stephanie Vance about how scientists can influence members of Congress. Here, in the second half, Vance goes into more detail about what to bring when you visit your legislator, what to say, and how to prepare.U.S. Capitol

Everybody walking into a legislator's office has an "ask"--the favor you want the legislator to do for you, and the reason for your being there.  Stephanie talks a bit here about different kinds of "asks". I think her advice (always make the ask!) supersedes the advice I gave in Marketing for Scientists about asks.

Props, Pictures, and One-Sheets

MK:  I often recommend that scientists use props as marketing tools.  What do you think?

SV:  Well, yeah. I think that works very well in the scientific community. For other advocates, it's pictures. We do a lot of work with the American Library Association. If you're a librarian, you bring in a picture from your library of kids sitting around a story circle or kids reading to dogs or people standing in line at the computer terminals or something that really tells the story.

Sometimes people bring props that actually work against their message. I remember when I was working on Capitol Hill, and someone was trying to make a point about clear cutting in forests. They were trying to say, "Hey, there's a lot of stuff that's cut out of forests and a lot of trees, and we brought you a board foot of timber."

I was like, "OK, so you cut down a tree [laughs] to make the point that we shouldn't cut down trees."

MK:  I see--it can't just be a random thing. The prop has to contain the story that you want to tell.  It’s also common to bring a “one sheet” to a meeting with your senator or representative—a  handout they can keep that summarizes your key points.  What do you tell people to put on their one sheets?

SV:  What goes on a one sheet...

First, your mission. This may be two sentences on what your organization is and a sentence on how it connects back to the legislator's district.

Too many people go into a legislator's office and don't ask for something.

The ask. Too many people go into a legislator's office and they don't ask for something, and that just begs a conversation that is, "Well, thank you for your thoughtful research on climate change. I agree that climate change is important, and I will be working with my colleagues in the Congress to address important issues that relate to whether the global warming trend is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." If you don't make the ask, you won't get a very specific answer to your concern.

I'd say include one paragraph on why you think that ask is important and why it matters. I'd say two or three one? or two?sentence examples that relate again back to the legislator's district. If you can make those examples pretty, with pictures, that is very helpful as well. Then include you contact information, "If you have more questions about this, here's how you get back to us."

MK:  Interesting! I had heard elsewhere that representatives are tired of scientists asking for stuff. They assume when you walk in the door that you're going to ask them for money. How do you get around that when you're asking?

There are relationship-building asks and there are policy asks.

SV:  I hear that a lot, like, "Oh, you don't want to always ask them for something. Sometimes you're there just to educate them or build relationships." I think that's true, but the way I think about it is there are relationship building asks and there are policy asks. You always have, in the back of your mind, a policy ask. Let's be honest. You're in there to ask for money or ask for a program not to be cut, most of the time--that's a policy ask.

If you're feeling like the office is like, "OK, God, stop asking us for this money, it's a difficult economic time, we're not sure if we're going to be able to get it for you," that's when I think relationship-building asks are important. You ask them to come visit the facility, ask them to come to a scientific meeting where you're presenting a paper, to ask them to spend a little time talking to the other researchers that you've worked with, to ask them to have a meeting in the district, something that's still an ask but is not constantly, "Give us this money."

When you make the ask, you switch the little switch in their head that says, "I have to pay some attention." Constantly going in and saying, "Hi, I'm here to educate you," those words come out of your mouth in any form and the legislator and staff are going to be like, "Oh, good, it's education, I don't really have to pay attention to what you're saying. I can think about all the 15 other decisions that we have to make in this particular day."

[For more about relationship-building asks, see this article.]

Say, “Imagine a World In Which…”

MK:  Some of the lobbying techniques that you recommend are really about connecting your subject to everyday life, right? What do you do if you’re working on the Higgs boson?

SV:  [laughs]  Yeah, it's hard in the scientific community, and I actually worked for a member of Congress who was on the Energy and Congress Committee. There was a lot of discussion about DARPA and the scientific programs that were looking at very basic research that was not necessarily going to apply very specifically to something that would benefit mankind immediately. Those were always difficult arguments to make. I think for the scientific community it's sometimes about capturing the imagination. One of the things I talk about in The Influence Game is capturing the ideological high ground. I think that for those longer?term projects, it’s all about figuring out a way to say, "Imagine of a world in which..."  DARPA's a good example. "Imagine a world in which everyone can communicate wirelessly. There's no cords connected to anything if everyone is operating over the spectrum."

Ted Kennedy's Office

MK:  You’ve told me some good tips about how to handle a meeting with a member of congress—to lobby yourself. Now, when's the time for scientists to go out hire lobbyists, and how do you do it?

SV:  I think that most scientists can actually connect with an organization that's already doing lobbying in Washington, D.C., or with their facility that they're working at. There is pretty much an association for every branch of science that you could imagine [laughs] on Capitol Hill. Also, if you're associated with a University, if it's a large University, usually they do have a lobbyist as well that's looking at all the different programs in the University and talking to the local elected officials about that.

How to Hire A Lobbyist

MK:  OK. Say you're the head of a new lab that's got 100 people in it or something like that, so you're representing a large group and you have a decent budget, bot no representation yet. What's the next move for you in terms of getting representation on Capitol Hill?

SV:   If you don't have a group in D.C. or if you feel like they aren't adequately representing your interests and you want to hire a lobbyist, one of the first things I would do is go to some of the websites that list lobbyists.  There is the American League of Lobbyists and they have a directory of lobbyists. I'd also suggest going to the House and Senate lobbying reports and if you just type in "House Lobbying Reports" into Google or a search engine of your choice, you can find who is already lobbying on particular issues. That will give you a good sense of some of the firms that are already working on the issues you care about and it allows you to check to see who is lobbying for your competitors.

MK:  How much does it cost?

SV:  I'll tell you what, you can get someone, anywhere from $1000 a month to simply look at bills and tell you what's going on and help you figure out what your next steps are to a $100,000 a month to take on your full campaign and to unleash a cadre of lobbyists onto Capitol Hill [laughs] to get as many offices talking about your issue or sometimes are not talking about it, as they possibly can. It really runs the gamut.

MK:  Right. Are there any other websites that you recommend for scientists to look at to help them prepare an approach to Capitol Hill?

SV:  Yeah, absolutely. One of the things I talk about is how it’s so important to know your audience. They can go to congress.gov, they look up their legislator, and they see what bills he or she has introduced. Even if it's nothing related to science or anything that scientists care about, it's always good to know what the legislator cares about because it's going to help them frame their message.

MK:  Right.

SV:  Then I suggest that they go a website like OpenSecrets.org, which helps them see who has contributed to a legislator's campaign. Now, I hate it when people think that it's appropriate to walk into a legislator's office and say, "Hey, I saw so and so contributed to your campaign and so you should do x, y, z for me." That's not only illegal but it makes the staff and the member less likely to do what it is that you want them to do. That said, it is good to see that they contributed to legislator's campaign because it gives you a sense of what issues interests them and you'll see a very strong connection between who the legislator represents and who is contributing to the campaign.

It’s always good to know what their job was before they came to D.C.

I also suggest VoteSmart.org, because that's a great website to get some biographical information on the legislator. It’s always good to know what their job was before they came to D.C. Were they a state legislator? Did they come from a small business background? Were they a consultant, were they a scientist, were they a doctor? If you know that background information, again, it can help you frame your message.

That website also has ratings from various groups, so a lot of groups will look at a legislator's voting record and say, "Hey, we think he was 96 percent with us," or, "We think he was three percent with us." For example, if you're trying to look at climate change, you might look and see what some of the energy and environment?related interest groups' scores are, so that can give you a sense of what perspective they might come to the issue from.

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And don’t miss Stephanie Vance’s own website, with funny and useful articles like “Ten Things Not to Say While You’re Advocating.”

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