From taxes to unemployment benefits to health and safety in the workplace, government officials at all levels impact the work of career counselors. Unfortunately, policymakers don’t always know what’s helpful (and what’s harmful) when drafting bills and writing rules. They need your insights to help them understand how these policies play out in the real world. Here are three strategies to help you not only be heard by elected officials, but what’s more important – to be agreed with.
Number One: Know What You Want
As a former Congressional staff person, I saw too many letters and e-mails from constituents saying such things as “we should pay less in taxes” or “we should support [insert name of issue, cause or industry here] more.” My first thought was always “which taxes? By how much? What would ‘support’ for your cause, issue or industry look like? Do you want us to cosponsor a bill? Make a statement? What?” In other words, I always wanted to know what the person asking specifically wanted us to do – and I rarely got an answer. That always gave me a perfect reason to stop thinking about the issue and move on to the next.
In the political world, there are essentially two kinds of “asks”: policy and relationship-building. Policy “asks” are oriented around specific legislative or government initiatives such as asking a member to support career counseling provisions in an appropriations bill. Relationship-building asks are things you ask for to get them engaged, such as a statement in support of National Career Development Month or a visit in the district. These “relationship building asks” help you build trust with legislators, which makes it far more likely that they will agree with you in the future. The National Career Development Association is a perfect resource for finding out more about both policy and relationship-building asks.
Number Two: Know Your Audience
To be effective, you’ll want to know what gets them up in the morning and what keeps them up at night. What gets them up is usually a policy interest they love – and what keeps them up is usually re-election. You can connect to these concerns by knowing two important things: first, who represents the areas in which you live, work or serve people (i.e., voters) and second, what bills they’ve introduced (even if not related to career counseling).
You can answer the representation question at www.congress.org by simply typing in your address. Elected officials represent distinct groups of people and devote their energy to the requests and needs of those individuals, so you must demonstrate your relevancy. You can find out about their legislative interests at www.congress.gov by look up bills they’ve introduced. These bills may not be connected in any way to career counseling concerns, but it’s still good to know what they care about so you can frame your issue in a way that resonates with them. For example, if he or she has introduced legislation on Veterans issues, talking about how career counselors help veterans would be a good way to attract the policy-maker’s attention.
Finally, you might also want to know where they are on the political spectrum. A more fiscally conservative member of Congress, for example, will be more intrigued with arguments about economic development and job creation, while a member of Congress interested in civil rights issues might be more interested in access and equity concerns. Never feel as though you can’t talk to one party or the other. The beauty of career counseling concerns is that they are truly bipartisan. Everyone wants to promote job development and worker training.
Number Three: Know How to Talk to Them Using the SPIT Technique
What you bring to the policy table is a compelling story about the impact of policy issues on people that the member of Congress represents. Develop your story based on the “SPIT” technique, which stands for Specific, Personal, Informative and Trustworthy. The following questions should help:
What do you want? Ask them to engage -- “come visit our campus” is better than “our career center provides valuable services”
Why would the elected official want that? What interests them and how does what you want connect to their interests?
What benefits do you provide and how have you improved people’s lives? How many people are impacted? How many of you helped?
How specifically will you follow-up?
Number Four (BONUS!): What Really Matters in Effective Influence
Because you will likely have very limited time in any interaction with an elected official or their staff person, it will simply not be possible to relay everything you want them to know in that very short period of time. Plus, they will likely have questions about the issues you raise that you will need to answer. Most advocates do not follow-up on these meetings, and then wonder why their representatives don't do what they were asked to do. You can boost your chances of success through effective follow-up.
A great place to start your political journey is to attend a townhall meeting when the legislator is in the district. Here you can learn a little about their perspectives, meet their staff and demonstrate that you are a concerned member of the community. To end on a positive note, remember that no influence effort should feel like a trip to the dentist. The goal of your campaign should be to achieve a goal you really want to achieve. If it starts feeling like a chore, you’re probably on the wrong track.
Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, is the author of five books on effective advocacy and influence, including The Influence Game. A former Capitol Hill Chief of Staff and lobbyist, she works with a wide range of groups, including the National Career Development Association, to improve their advocacy efforts. More at www.theinfluencegame.com