The Secret to Effective Lobbying

I am occasionally asked, "What is the secret to being a good lobbyist?" It is a good and interesting question. The short answer is to simply "be honest and be yourself." Adherence to these five little words will get you most of the way there.
By Shelby Neal | May 20, 2014

People are often bemused—and perhaps even a bit intimidated—by the world of government. Especially the federal government. The buildings are palatial. Fourteen-karat gold lines the doors and hallways. People speak in coded 18th century language. And, of course, everyone exudes an air of importance.

As a result, I am occasionally asked, “What is the secret to being a good lobbyist?” It is a good and interesting question. The short answer is to simply “be honest and be yourself.” While I’d love to make it more complicated than that (for purposes of job security), the reality is that adherence to these five little words will get you most of the way there.

Before I delve into a longer and perhaps more satisfying answer, I would like to make an essential point, which is that the vast majority of “lobbying” is merely education by another name. We help influencers understand technical information related to biodiesel, its feedstocks, and whatever else might keep them from making informed decisions. The thrilling, vicious, high-stakes world of lobbying pretty much only exists on television. Disappointing, I know.

Real success in the field of government affairs relies on good, old-fashioned relationship-building. And just to be clear, I am not advocating for more toothy-grinned, alpha-networking. Everybody hates that. Or at least I do. No, what I am talking about is developing genuine working relationships based on trust and mutual respect. And maybe even friendships, if you’re lucky. Once someone knows you, likes you, and trusts you, they’ll lend you their time and an open mind. And this, my friends, is fertile ground for biodiesel education. Or lobbying. Whatever you want to call it.

Of course, I’m not exactly unlocking any secrets to the universe here. I realize that. So I am not sure this technically qualifies as an answer to the original question. But I guess the secret to being a good lobbyist is that there is no secret. Be around a lot (a whole lot), know your stuff (more than anyone else), be persistent (but polite), and try to be a good person (admitting when you’re not). That is kind of it, really. Or, at least, 90 percent of it.

If this answer still leaves you wanting, I don’t blame you. This is not exactly the stuff of great novellas and screen plays. But it is the truth. As evidence, I would point you in the direction of our own Joe Jobe and the D.C. team. They have done a phenomenal job developing relationships with federal officials. Next time you attend a National Biodiesel Board meeting, watch them interact with agency and congressional staff. It is obvious they get along great. No tension. No formality. No conflict. Just a lot of positive energy. This is a big part of why such a long string of policy successes have been achieved at the federal level—from EPAct to the tax credit to RFS2.

In my area of state affairs, I would point to historical successes in states such as Minnesota, Iowa, and California. These are some of the best biodiesel markets in the country with some of the best policies for in-state companies. How were these successes achieved? You guessed it—good, old-fashioned relationship-building. Of course, these aren’t the only states that do a great job, but I think these folks are among the leaders.

In these states, members not only know the decision makers, they are often viewed as friends, advisors and architects of mutually beneficial solutions. In addition to earmarking their own time for these activities, which is critical, they fund state trade associations to further facilitate collaboration, information gathering, and relationship maintenance. In short, they are highly dedicated to being a consistent and helpful part of the legislative and regulatory process. And their wins are a win for the entire biodiesel industry.

So I guess I have a new short answer to “What is the secret to being a good lobbyist?”  Ask Joe or an NBB member from Iowa, Minnesota or California.

Shelby Neal, Director of State Governmental Affairs, National Biodiesel Board

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