Small Business, Big Impact
Forming relationships with legislators is the first step in protecting your business.
For many businesses, putting money into legislative priorities means reducing already-thin margins. It also means diverting attention from one’s principle goals such as growing the business, ensuring customer satisfaction and business quality, and taking care of employees. And it can mean risking one’s reputation inside your community.
The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) exists to reduce these burdens. We take on the public fights so you don’t have to. Yet, each and every member of the responsible pet trade can do one thing that will have high yield and low risk—create lawmaker relationships before you need to.
Many legislative issues can be dealt with through relationship building before any bill is introduced—an investment that is financially affordable and won’t take up too much of your time.
Perhaps most importantly, this is far less expensive in both dollars and time than reacting after a harmful bill or ordinance has been introduced—and it has a far better chance of stopping bad bills and pushing the good ones through.
Here’s what to do to get and keep lawmakers’ attentions:
First, reach out via phone or e-mail to the elected official or their senior staff member who organizes meetings for the official. Let them know that there’s no legislative “ask,” but at their convenience you would like to swing by their office to introduce yourself.
In the first meeting, be brief. Use whatever time you have to succinctly explain who you are, what you do and what you can offer to the lawmaker’s efforts to protect companion animals, business interests, consumers and/or public health. This can be intimidating, but remember that lawmakers want to get to know you and the issues you care about. You are their constituent—their boss, in a way. And you don’t represent just yourself, but also your customers and employees.
Depending upon the level and type of lawmaker, you may be meeting with a staff member. That’s not a bad thing, as staffers usually have more time to talk than elected officials.
It may take more than one meeting to establish a rapport, but be patient. Talk about the good you do for pets and pet lovers, and mention awards you have received. Explain what the larger industry is doing on self-regulation and animal care. (We at PIJAC can assist you with this.)
Once you’re able to create a positive connection with the lawmaker’s office, it’s time to invite the staff and the official to tour your facility. Let them see firsthand what you do and—if you deal directly with live animals—how you care for them. Make your staff available for discussion and explanation.
At this point, lawmakers will ideally see you as an ally. Stay in touch so this positive relationship continues. Their offices are inundated with requests for meetings, with votes and with legislative and regulatory issues. Regular communication keeps you at the forefront of their minds.
These relationships help lawmakers to see you in a good light and call on you when an issue arises. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie, you are getting a “yes” from them before you’ve asked them for anything.
We at PIJAC do these things every day—and we advise our members to do the same. One recent success story is how an alliance of pet stores halted or improved several harmful bills in Virginia. This was the second year in a row that this group successfully worked with lawmakers—and as one leader said afterward, the second time was much easier than the first because relationships were already built.
Defense Isn’t Enough
Virginia is just one example of where existing relationships create more effective legislative strategies—and, hopefully, success. Having the open-door relationship prior to issues arising means that lawmakers are more likely to rely on you when things come in front of them. It means that rather than being considered an outsider or even an opponent, you’re viewed as an ally and a trusted resource. This makes negotiating much easier, less expensive and more likely to succeed than simply reacting once something is introduced.
It’s often said in sports that a strong defense is key to victory. This is true, but offense is still necessary. Defense may succeed (read: stop bad bills) for a while, but even a prepared defense won’t completely stop Tom Brady from hitting his receivers. Likewise, your opponents will always be looking for the crack in your armor or a defensive misstep.
For you as a business owner, proactive offense is necessary to score legislative touchdowns. It means investing the time to create a relationship with elected officials and their staff. By doing this, you’re more likely to stop bad bills and good legislation will be considered more seriously.
You might be a small business with limited dollars to put towards legislative priorities. But by working extra hard at proactively creating relationships, you’ll have a much bigger influence when push comes to shove. PB
Mike Bober is president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC).