Lobbying for Scientists: Interview with Stephanie Vance, Part 1
Speaking as a citizen of the United States, I can say that right now I am not happy with our Congress. If you're in the U.S.A., I bet you’re not either. So I’d like to offer you an interview with advocacy expert Stephanie Vance about how we scientists can influence our legislators.
Vance started her career as a legislative aid in a DC law firm. She went on to work as a lobbyist for National Public Radio, as legislative director for Congresswoman Eshoo from California, and then chief of staff for Congressman Earl Blumenauer from Portland, Oregon. After a while, she realized that “I'm the person who people would come in and advocate at, and sometimes they would do it efficiently and effectively and sometimes not so much.” Since then, she’s written five books on advocacy, including Citizens in Action: A Guide to Lobbying and Influencing Government and her most recent book, The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington D.C. Lobbying World that Will Get You to Yes. And for twelve years, now, Vance has run a business called Advocacy Guru helping people communicate with Congress and state legislators—so they will “not just be heard but agreed with”.
Let's get to it.
Lobbying is Marketing
MK: So your father was a physicist?
SV: Yes, my dad was an optical physicist. He was, like many scientists, always believing that if he told people the most logical argument, that here's Problem A and Solution B is obviously the thing that solves that, that's what people should do. But logic never works on Capitol Hill. I think the scientific community always has a challenge in terms of recognizing that while their solution may actually be the best after extensive testing, on Capitol Hill you need to make your arguments in a different way.
MK: What would you say is the difference between lobbying and marketing?
SV: I would say there is virtually no difference. [laughs] Like in your book, Marketing for Scientists, you talk a lot about the structure of how to develop a marketing effort and really basic things like knowing what you want, knowing your audience, knowing how to develop a message. Those are just the basic tenets of lobbying. I think one of the key things of marketing is to try and talk about what you're selling from the perspective of the person who's buying it. In Washington, DC, we're really selling ideas. We need to talk about that from the perspective of, again, the person buying that idea, which is usually a legislator or a staff person.
MK: Clearly, lobbying has a lot to do with relationship building. Do you ever talk about things like branding and positioning and things like that?
SV: I think that in the lobbying world, branding might relate to reputation. You want to brand yourself not just as an effective lobbyist or advocate; you want to brand yourself as a trustworthy one. That can be a challenge in Washington, D.C., although I don't think it's as challenging as people think it is. It's really the exception rather than the rule when you'll have any problem with someone being unethical.
MK: That's great to hear.
SV: It's true. Trust me.
MK: That’s a relief, at a time when Congress is obviously spending such a large fraction of its time in a stalemate.
Congress: It’s Like Having 535 People Peer Review Everything You Do
SV: Well, it's true. I think people don't realize that Congress is actually designed to be inefficient. It's not a system that's supposed to be constantly moving forward and that things are supposed to be getting done. The Founding Fathers actually set it up so that it would be very, very difficult to move legislative initiatives through the process. It's very hard to get a member of Congress from very rural Alabama to agree with a member of Congress from urban New York. I think people a lot of times say, "Well, we want them to abandon what it is their districts want and come to agreement from a broader leadership perspective," but that's not what Congress does, especially the House. Both the House and the Senate are representative democracies, and they're supposed to be representing the interests of their constituents. As you see the country more and more divided, that's why you see Congress more and more divided. For the scientific community, I like to say it's like trying to have 535 people peer‑review everything you do.
MK: When you work with people who have come to DC to visit their representatives, how do you help them prepare for the meetings?
When you walk in the door, you’ll meet a 14-year old staff person....They’re all 14. Your first words should be, either “I’m from your district” or “I represent people in your district”.
SV: Well, that's a good question. We call them grassroots advocates—the people who are coming from around the country to meet with their legislators.
When you walk in the door, you will probably meet a 14‑year‑old staff person. Don't be all insulted when that happens. They're all 14. Your very first words should be, either, "I'm from your district," or "I represent people in your district. I'm here to ask you about this program. Here's how it connects back to the district.”
Then you continue the conversation, "Oh, by the way, I saw you introduce legislation on…" you know, something random, small whatever it is. Then you segue to your topic, keeping in mind how it affects the legislator’s district. "Small businesses are very concerned in how these contracts, or how these grants are given. I know that not only is it important to your constituency, but it's important to a policy agenda you want to move forward. Will you support this particular level of funding in this particular program?"
Too often, people have all the facts and figures, they get nervous about them. They aren't really sure, oh, what to say. "Oh, my god, I'm going to say the wrong number. Then, I'm going to screw up the funding for everybody on the planet."
It's not about whether you know all the facts and figures and statistics about the legislative process.
But the role of the grassroots advocate is really to make the connection between the crazy stuff in DC and back to the Congressional District. It's not about whether you know all the facts and figures and statistics about the legislative process. That's what the lobbying community is for.
MK: Are you likely to be able to get a meeting with a staff person from a representative from outside your district?
SV: If you can make a connection to the legislator’s district. If you're a scientist and you are trying to deliver this message about how you want to keep a particular program funded, I would say you need to look at that legislator's district, you need to look at whether any of the funding has gone to that district, whether there's any university in the district that's contributing to the research, whether there's any facility in the district that sells some product that you need to conduct the research—anything that is even remotely connected to that funding level. Then, if you contact the Congressional office and say, "This particular widget in this district is very essential to this program. Whether this program is cut or not impacts you," then you'll have a, I'd say, maybe 60/40 chance.
It's not enough to simply go to your representative and say, “Here's the problem.” You have to propose a solution.
MK: OK let's say you're a scientist, and your models have just spat out some numbers predicting that something terrible is going to happen to the people of the United States. What would you say is your next step?
SV: I think the next step is to immediately develop a rocket and get off the planet. [laughs] Right after that, I think the step is to figure out very specifically what legislators can do to help solve that problem. It's not just a matter of going to them and saying, "The world is ending. Hey, there you go, do something about it." It's really a matter of trying to figure out, OK, if the world is ending, what program can the federal government start, what policy change can they make, what provisions can they make for people to survive the destruction of the world. It's not enough to simply go and say, "Here's the problem." You have to propose a solution.
The interview with Stephanie will continue next week with more specific advice about influencing Congress—maybe the shutdown will be over by then!