Engage with Your Elected Officials… Before There’s a Problem
There are four key elements to building effective relationships with lawmakers.
We at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) joined thousands of others in the pet care community in August at the SuperZoo trade show in Las Vegas. There was energy in the aisles and education sessions as attendees prepared for the coming retail season by ordering the trending products and learning effective selling strategies.
I had the honor of educating attendees about a different kind of proactive tactic to strengthen and protect their businesses during my Show Floor Talk, “If You Want a Friend in Washington...,” and I want to share the highlights with you.
My presentation’s title was inspired by the famous quote, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” It’s often misattributed to former President Harry Truman, but in reality it was first said by former Senator Nancy Kassebaum.
The sentiment rings true to pet owners and policy makers alike, and serves as a reminder that pets are common ground that nearly everyone can relate to. As a pet care professional, you have a unique opportunity to offer your experience and expertise to lawmakers on a wide range of issues that could have a significant impact on pet well being and your pet-related business.
But waiting to engage with your elected officials until an issue arises is not an effective strategy. Someone else could have gotten the lawmaker’s attention already, and the first person to bring up an issue gets to frame the discussion.
It’s imperative that you establish a rapport before there’s an issue. You want the lawmaker to be aware of you as a credible information resource, so they turn to you to get the insights they need to make an informed decision when something does arise.
Here’s a simple way to remember the keys to effective communication with your elected officials—the four Fs—face, facts, focus and follow-up.
• Face: Elected officials need to be reminded that the pet industry is not a faceless, profit-driven conglomerate—the pet care community is made up of individuals and families, like yourself, who care both for and about pets. You are the face of the responsible pet care community. Sit down with your lawmaker and their staff, describe your business and community involvement, and invite them to your store or facility to take a tour and meet your staff.
• Facts: Roughly two-thirds of American households own pets, and the pet care community generates over $221 billion in economic output. Those are verified statistics that lawmakers can’t afford to ignore. When you meet with your lawmakers, bring facts like these. You can find more data on our website at pijac.org.
Just as important is to not make facts up in your eagerness to provide answers. It’s better to say, “I don’t know, but I will get back to you,” than to guess and have your credibility damaged when your information turns out to be wrong.
• Focus: Everyone’s time is valuable, and competition for lawmakers’ attention is high. Make sure you’ve thought out ahead of time what information you want to share, and stick to a few key items. You can always come back to cover more topics.
• Follow-Up: Always follow up a meeting with anyone in the lawmaker’s office—from staff to the elected official—with an emailed thank you for their time and a brief recap of your conversation. If you promised additional information, provide it, or let them know when you expect to have it for them. Finally, reiterate your availability as a resource.
Don’t be a stranger, either. Touch base every so often to share good news about your business, or information you think would be useful to them. The goal is to be front-of-mind when they need to make a decision on an issue that could impact your business.
Taking the steps to establish relationships with your elected officials may be hard at first, but it is essential. When we at PIJAC hosted the first annual Pet Care Community DC Fly-In on Capitol Hill in September 2018, the most common feedback from attendees was how surprised they were at how comfortable their meetings with Members of Congress and their staff were.
I look forward to providing you with an update on the 2nd Annual Fly-In, which was on Sept. 18. Remember, we at PIJAC are here to help you. Contact us at email@example.com to learn more about everything from making initial meeting requests to following up and getting truly involved with your elected officials. PB
Mike Bober is the president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.