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Seven Lobbying Mistakes Small Businesses Make

Amy Handlin

For small businesses, learning how to influence state and local government is a smart management strategy - and an essential survival skill.  But seven common mistakes often keep that persuasion from happening.

A business can avoid those mistakes and become a successful advocate, whether it's to change a local ordinance so the company can expand, to land a state contract, or to fight the negative effects of a local polluter.

Amy H. Handlin, Ph.D., deputy minority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly and associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University pinpoints the seven lobbying mistakes and explains how to avoid them.

Companies don't have to hire a pricey professional lobbyist. But they do need to learn some basics and how to avoid these classic beginner errors:

Mistake No. 1: Choosing the wrong level of government. To determine whether the company should target a local, state or federal official or agency, determine where the issue has the most concentrated effect. Then follow the money trail - who collects the revenues, and for what. Finally, check every document related to the issue and look for official stamps and seals for clues as to who handles it. 

Mistake No. 2: Limiting the research. Dig beneath the surface of official Web sites. Use media archives, political literature, blogs, and Freedom of Information requests. Go to public meetings. And don't limit information-gathering to just one target agency or official.

Mistake No. 3: Avoiding personal contact with officials. Get to know officials when the company doesn't need their specific help - particularly at informal events. Don't hesitate to initiate an informal conversation. Cultivate relationships with staff members, too.

Mistake No. 4: Having a weak or limited coalition. Be creative when looking for allies, and ask other businesses with complementary concerns to reach out as well. Educate all coalition members on the issues. (Don't assume everyone is already on the same page.) Select energetic and focused leaders who can keep members motivated. Define goals as broadly as possible, so everyone feels included and invested.

Mistake No. 5: Making written communication faux pas. Double-check correct name spellings and titles. Provide sources for all data. Be concrete and specific. Research relevant requirements, such as time limits or numbers of signatures. Make communication personalized. Don't overuse rhetoric. Don't be discourteous.

Mistake No. 6: Muffing verbal communication opportunities. In phone calls, in face-to-face meetings or public forums such as rallies or community meetings, humanize the story with examples. Use props or visual aids. Bring attention to who is supporting the company. Research, review and rehearse. Don't drop names, be unprepared, be overly familiar or jocular, or use silly gimmicks. Avoid being long-winded, accusatory or impatient.

Mistake No. 7: Missing messaging opportunities. Don't confuse a slogan with a message. Don't exaggerate the facts. Develop a well-framed, fact-based message, stick to it and get everyone working with the company to do the same so one consistent message comes across. Don't assume the target official or agency "gets" it. Take time to educate them on the issue. Show them that this action affects more than just the company. Avoid using jargon, vague references or an uninformed spokesperson.

Handlin is the author of Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout With State and Local Government (Praeger, 2010),

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