Amy Showalter is an author and grassroots and PAC influence expert who founded The Showalter Group to help associations and corporations increase their grassroots and PAC effectiveness. Her blog, Politicking the Bottom Line is published on Forbes.com.
A REFRESHING ARTICLE in the January 25 issue of CEO Update entitled “Some Lobbyists Chart a Different Course to Career Success” explores whether one can have a career in lobbying without “doing time” on the Hill. The article profiles various lobbyists who did not have prior Hill experience before becoming lobbying professionals, all of whom are obtaining results for their organizations without doing harm to the environment, kittens, or young children.
Yet it remains conventional wisdom that a lack of Hill experience is an instant blight on a lobbying candidate’s credentials. This sort of belief overlooks more important candidate characteristics, one of which I uncovered in a proprietary research project.
Why the “K Street Project” was a dumb idea
Remember former Congressman Tom Delay’s “K Street Project?” It was a campaign to “encourage” K Street firms to hire former GOP congressional staffers. Delay wanted the Republican team to have jobs with companies and organizations whose issues aligned with the GOP. But if the purpose of hiring a lobbyist is to persuade people who disagree with you, then the K St. project was misguided from the start. It ignored a key element of persuasion, which is the principle of similarity.
Dr. Kelton Rhoads and my colleague from USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and I conducted research several years ago to determine the factors that change a legislator’s mind on an issue. We asked the respondents to include examples from a winning effort (the targeted legislator changed his or her mind) and a losing one, and found that the more similar a lobbyist is to the opposed or undecided legislator, the more likely that lawmaker is to change his or her mind. In fact, similarity was one of the top five factors that successfully changed a legislator’s mind. If only Tom Delay knew that…
High-Priority Persuasion Requires Different Tactics
When an organization that leans right hires lobbyists who lean right (which was exactly the strategy of the K Street Project) there is a political soul mate match. But for high priority persuasion, the decision should be based less on the organization’s philosophical match and more on a match with the opposed or undecided lawmakers.
Depending on what’s at stake, you should consider hiring lobbyists who, regardless of Hill experience, share the value system and philosophy of your high-priority influence targets. Many organizations take care of this through contracting with outside firms that have a stable of bi-partisan experts. But hiring in-house those who typically have a different perspective sends a very different message. The commitment level is different because you are making more of a long term decision to win your opponent over.
You need someone who can flip the predictable opponent. A major piece of that puzzle is acquiring someone who has a shared value system with those you are trying to persuade.
Think about it. Otherwise, you’re leaving a major influence tool in the tool box.