Research Review: Communicating with Congressional Staff – What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why: Part One

Lobbyblog is happy to introduce our guess writer for this week, Amy Showalter with the Showalter Group.  Amy, thank you so much for being here this week.

I was happy to see some solid research conducted via a partnership between Original U.S. Congress Handbook, David Rehr of The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, and ORI. [ed. Found here at:]

The research sought to find out what tactics are most effective when communicating with congressional staff, particularly from a lobbyist’s perspective. The goal of the report is to help organizations and lobbyists learn how to better communicate with congressional staff.  I’m gratified to see several of the findings correlate with previous research conducted by Dr. Kelton Rhoads and myself, which you can find here: as well as research that formed the basis for The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful. . .and Live to Tell About It. #underdogedge
I’ll be commenting on various aspects of the findings in this and future articles, including my insights on how to apply the findings to your work.  I believe the ground truth from the research is that is helps us focus on what matters, and which to tactics we should allocate more (or less) resources.  First, I want to address the best thing about the survey – the methodology.

Methodology Matters

The researchers asked congressional staff what they prefer regarding communications tactics, rather than asking the staffer what their member of Congress thinks about a tactic. Seems like a small matter, but in the research world, it’s vital. Asking someone what another person thinks or would do and drawing conclusions from that might be interesting, but I would not base a strategy on those kinds of findings. Dealing with respondent veracity is hard enough, but to ask an individual what someone else thinks puts the findings in a congressional staff member, how they personally view certain types of communications, so I give it an A+.
OK, I’ve stepped off the soapbox.

“Where You Are is Who You Were”

One of the questions asked staff what factors determine whether a lobbyist will gain access. The one that caught my attention was the “reputation of the individual seeking the meeting.”

In Chapter Two of The Underdog Edge, I write about building your street cred. We found from interviews with powerful people whose minds were changed that they factor in your reputation when deciding whether to give you time and access. Busy people don’t have time to do all the necessary research to determine if you’re a credible communicator. Therefore, your reputation determines in part whether you will get access.

The bottom  line: Where you are now is in part based on who you were years ago. Think about where you want to be in five years. Get your “street cred” repaired or ramped up for future success.

Lack of Bias = Lots of Influence

What’s effective to influence legislation? One of the top four responses include to  “present/refute opposing views.” Again, in Underdog Edge, our research revealed that a key element of credibility is being unbiased. Many of the legislators I interviewed whose minds were changed by constituents said that the unbiased presentation of the facts got their attention.

The bottom  line: Know what your opponents say, as well as their influence strategies, for increased persuasion (and more credibility).

What did staff consider an ineffective technique to get their attention? “Organizing email/postcard/call campaigns” and “sending daily issue emails/ newsletters” as well as those very expensive ads in Capitol Hill publications.

Why organizations do things that don’t get results, I’ll never know, but hopefully this research will provide for better allocation of organizational resources.  In the next Roots of Success, we’ll review more research findings and how you can apply them for greater communications and persuasion success.

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