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Thursday, March 31, 2016

 11:03 AM 

Wendy Riemann column: Advantageous Advocacy: Neither over nor off with their heads

The hot-headed queen in Alice in Wonderland was quick to yell “off with their heads” when she was upset. Hot-headed lobbyists, or those with large egos, will sometimes attempt the same approach with a government staff person because they are not getting their way, or not getting it fast enough. It seldom works.

Apart from the rare instance of unprofessional behavior from a staff member, complaining to an official or trying to go over a staff person’s head, is far more likely to damage a lobbyist’s reputation.

In one performance review, my boss at the time said that in three years he could only remember one complaint about me. I gave him a do-tell look and he did.  I then laughed and said, “Oh yes, that’s the guy who wanted [ridiculous request on top of ridiculous request], and I told him no.”

My boss laughed even harder and said, “’I KNEW it would be something like that from HIM and that you would have had a good reason to say no – it’s why I didn’t follow-up with him or think it was even worth mentioning to you.  Excellent judgment...”

The complaint actually helped reinforce to my boss that he could trust my instincts and that I would not waste his time on ridiculous requests.  Had the lobbyist been able to get over his bruised ego and act on my more reasonable suggestions, instead of trying to go over my head, I would have helped move his other items forward.  Instead, he got nowhere with me, and did not have a champion anywhere else in the office, so he just spun his wheels.

In my survey of Hill staff, a person gave an example of how something was not moving fast was not moving fast enough for a lobbyist, and that lobbyist complained to the Congress member.

The member spoke with the staff person about it and learned the request was being held up by something out of her control. The member never doubted her staff and directed the lobbyist right back to that same staff person – a staffer who now knew the lobbyist spoke poorly about her work to her boss, and tried to go over her head. She is a good public servant, so she provided the necessary assistance, but she did not have any desire to go out of her way for someone who threatened her livelihood.

Another colleague with a higher ranking title said, “If you go over my head, make sure you have a head shot and can take me out because I'm NEVER going to forget it.”

He continued that he would make a note in his files of that person trying to tarnish his reputation and would not meet with them again. These lobbyists probably never stopped for a second to think about the potential long-term impacts of their short-sighted comments. However, working well with staff and appreciating their efforts is a key to successful advocacy.

An elected official at any level rarely acts on a request without first consulting staff.  Trying to go over someone’s head to speed something up often slows down the process, because it puts everything out of order and people are compelled to double check the request. This means a complaint, or an attempt to circumvent a staff person, will almost always get back to the staff person. As a result, the lobbyist ends up needing to work with someone he has annoyed, or worse, made an adversary of; thus he likely loses a critical ally within that office who could have provided guidance on navigating the next steps.

Furthermore, if a lobbyist is complaining or trying to go around staff, the member may assume that lobbyist is sneaky or says bad things about everyone and is untrustworthy.

When a lobbyist threatens a staff person’s reputation and livelihood, he is often hurting himself.

No one wins, so keep the ego in check.

-- Riemann is president of 1492 Communications, a consulting firm. She can be reached at: wendy@1492communications.com.

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