A longtime Arlington County Board member shakes up Virginia politics by announcing plans to step away. Uncertainty clouds the future for the chief of one of Maryland's treasured public school systems. And the field of candidates narrows in D.C.'s special elections looming in the spring.
Guest Host: Rebecca Roberts
Government is most effective when citizens are active participants. And being an “active participant” doesn’t just mean voting once every four years. The Advocacy Guru joins us to help explore how “the influence game” is played in Washington, D.C., and how you can become your own best lobbyist.
- Stephanie Vance author "The Influence Game" (Wiley); also Partner, Advocacy Associates
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. In Washington, it's often said that the key to getting things done is not what you know but who you know. It can seem as though the influence and power you wield can be measured by the number of business cards you collected at previous evening's fundraiser. But beyond having contacts, there is a method to networking madness that should be adhered to. And there are rules, not just people you should know, if you want to affect change.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSHere to tell us how to stand out and make your own lock and lobby for a cause in a thoughtful and ethical way is Stephanie Vance, the co-founder of Advocacy Associates. That's a D.C.-based consulting firm. She's a former lobbyist and congressional aide, and her latest book is called "The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington D.C. Lobbying World that Will Get You to Yes." Stephanie Vance, welcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MS. STEPHANIE VANCEOh, thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
ROBERTSSo it's a little ironic that we're having this conversation about how the average person can affect change in the wake of these massive conventions where so much money has been spent clearly with at least some idea of gaining some influence in the next administration. How can we sort of reconcile the idea that people still feel the need to spend such big money with the idea that an average person could make a difference?
VANCEYeah. I've heard there was some money spent at the conventions and quite the number of parties there. You know, I tend to think that -- I'm not going to raise anyone's skepticism about money in the political process. That's just not going to be possible. But what I will say is that I wish people would kind of look at it sometimes from the other prospective, which is sometimes people are paying or contributing to campaigns because they want to get people into office who already understand their views.
VANCESo it's less about giving someone a campaign check and saying, you know, hey, will you vote with me, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, changing their mind on that and more about just getting someone into office who frankly already agrees with them.
ROBERTSAlthough the flipside of that, of course is, you know, I gave you all this money in your campaign, maybe it made the difference in your campaign. If you don't continue to advance my agenda, maybe I won't give you that money next time.
VANCEWell, yeah, that's true. And I think, you know, that, in many ways, actually gives people more power in terms of, you know, identifying things that are important to them and making sure that the people in office are supporting that. You know, I haven't really seen a lot of elected officials change their mind on an issue or, you know, bends to special interests because that person gave them money for the campaign. A good example of this is Sen. Murray, who some people call the senator from Boeing and she...
ROBERTSPatty Murray of Washington.
VANCEExactly. And, you know, I took a look at some of the contributions that Boeing made to her campaign versus the number of people that are employed in Washington State by Boeing, and the percentage of people employed is higher than the direct amount of funds that came from Boeing and to her campaign. So when I look at those numbers, I tend to think, well, she's there to protect the employees and the constituents of Washington State, and so it makes sense that a company like Boeing who employs those folks would be interested in having her an office.
ROBERTSWell, when you've got a major employer in your district, I think it's a little bit more clear that your interest and their interest align than, say, a lobbying group that's an issue-advocacy organization.
VANCEWell, yes, that's true. And I think, you know, a lot of times, the issue organizations do have, you know, do go on the more logical side of things as opposed to the more money side of things. An example I'd like to give of this is, you know, I'm sure you've heard of Jack Abramoff and how he certainly was a contributor to the political process in more ways than one.
VANCEAnd, you know, he actually did not achieve as much as some of the interest organizations like The Humane Society who got far more done in the legislative process with far fewer contributions to people's campaigns. So I do think issue advocacy groups do have an amazing role to play especially when they engage citizens in process.
ROBERTSWell, there's this -- that sort of brings up the idea of astroturf roots, you know, that engaging citizens in the process can look like if you do it right, that it was just your constituents who felt moved to write a letter when, in fact, they have been prodded and even scripted by an outside organization. And I imagine that's only made blurry over social media and the ability to get messages out quickly and more wide.
VANCEWell, and the interesting thing with social media, you know, it's certainly is having a role to play in advocacy and lobbying. At the same time, the challenge of social media is it's not place based. So you can get people to tweet and Facebook, you know, to an elected official or at an elected official, but they don't know if you're -- if the person who's doing that is a constituent. So I think there's some challenges there in terms of actually influencing a legislator's position.
VANCEYou know, in terms of the astroturf thing overall, you know, I tend to look at it as what's happening in D.C. is pretty complex. There are 10,000 bills introduced in a congressional session, only about 4 percent of them passed. The role that a lot of these groups play is to help citizens understand what's going on with those 10,000 bills, what actually impacts them and how they can get to their elected officials and make a difference.
ROBERTSWell, let's turn this out to our audience. If you've ever reached out to your representative in Congress, tell us how you approached them, what sort of response you got. Or if you support an advocacy group, a charitable organization, an agency that you think does an especially good job of advocating for their cause, let us know. You can reach us by phone, 800-433-8850. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
ROBERTSAs I mentioned, all of these different methods of getting in touch with us, it brings up the question, what is the best method of getting in touch with your member of Congress especially in a post-Anthrax world where physical mail doesn't necessarily get there with any sort of speed?
VANCEYeah, it's true. They do have to make a pit stop to be irradiated, and they come out that process brown and crunchy so hugely influential in that state. To me, it matters less whether you use email, phone calls, meetings or carrier pigeons to communicate with your members. To me, it's far more important what the message is. So I talk to folks about a SPIT technique, which is an acronym. You know, we love our acronyms. And SPIT stands for specific, personal, informative and timely.
VANCESo in the message, being specific about what it is you want, what it is you think the elected official can do for you, telling that personal story that's really what citizens bring to the process, backing up that personal story with information, facts and figures, and then the T as timely. Of course, you want to deliver that message when the elected official can do something about it not after.
ROBERTSSo, for instance, right now, when Congress is back in session for a handful of days before the election, Congresses are not famous for a lot of action right before an election. Is this maybe a time to back off?
VANCEWell, actually I think this is a time to -- there's two things you can really do during this time period. First of all, yes, Congress is inertia. I mean, that is, they are designed to be completely and totally inefficient, and they do an excellent job of that. So now is really the time to figure out if you've got something that would be considered in this next couple of months or during the lame duck to think about who is going to influence the people who are making the decisions.
VANCESo if you've got a really important little issue, rather than trying to go -- try to get to the folks in the smoke-filled rooms yourself, try to get to the other members of Congress who can influence those people. So I call that finding the influencees, who are the people you want to influence, and finding the influencers. And that to me is really the role in effective advocacy campaign.
VANCEThe second thing I would say is, you know, that this was a great time to prepare for 2013. We're certainly going to see some changes either way, you know, either the Congress were going to have new members, we may have a new administration. And so now is really the time to start building relationships and learning, getting some intelligence on some of the folks who may be in office.
ROBERTSYou said Congress is inertia. You refer to it as, you know, smoky backrooms. Congress' approval ratings are at historic lows. There's just the sort of overwhelming sense that it's hopeless, you know. Why even bother to go try to address what seems like a broken body?
VANCEWell, and I definitely hear that, you know, some of the points I try to make with that. I love the comment, by the way, that it's within the margin of error in terms of...
ROBERTSThat's actually John McCain's line, I think.
VANCEYes, yes. It was -- that was pretty funny. But, I mean, a couple of points there. First of all, you know, I think people shouldn't be surprised to find that Congress is inefficient. You know, again, the Founding Fathers set it up to be that way. They were coming off a monarchy they weren't that fond of and really wanted to have a system that, you know, was very difficult to get stuff through the process.
VANCEAnd I think, you know, gerrymandering in the state legislatures isn't helping 'cause we're designing districts that are becoming increasingly partisan. And then you send partisan folks to Washington, D.C., and you wonder why they can't agree on things. To me, that's not surprising. But also, you know, my main point is if you don't participate, if you don't vote, if you don't at least reach out to your members at Congress, frankly, I think, you know, we get to whine too much about the outcome.
ROBERTSYeah. Well, let's ask our audience. Do you have some whining to do?
ROBERTSDo you think that there is still something to be gained by petitioning your member of Congress and, of course, may complicate it here in Washington, D.C., about our own representative system? But join us. Call 800-433-8850. Excuse me, 433-8850. Or email us, email@example.com. What about that question, those of us who do not have a voting representative in Congress, what do we do as constituents?
VANCEYeah, that's a difficult one. I mean, the great irony of the Advocacy Guru's life is that she lives in D.C. and does not have voting representation in Congress. You know, first of all, I think our delegates can be very effective. They are good at getting to other elected officials. They can get their views integrated into the process that way. You know, we certainly still have a role with reaching out to the administration. And, of course, you know, trying to get those voting rights for Washington, D.C., an ongoing battle but something I think is important to continue to fight.
ROBERTSDo you think it still matters for someone to say, I live in your district, whatever that district was?
VANCEI think that is the most important thing you can say in a congressional office. I think when you walk in the door of that office, that is the first thing the staff or the elected official is thinking, is how do you connect to the people I represent? And that's -- I actually was talking to a chief of staff on Capitol Hill who is of the other party than myself. And he said that his boss will not co-sponsor a bill unless a constituent asks. And, to me, that's a very powerful statement about the role constituents play.
ROBERTSWe are talking with Stephanie Vance. Her most recent book is called "The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington D.C. Lobbying World that Will Get You to Say Yes." We're going to take a quick break, but when we come back, more of your calls and emails. 800-433-8850, or email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking about how to become your own best lobbyist with Stephanie Vance, co-founder of Advocacy Associates and author most recently of "The Influence Game." We're also taking your calls and emails, 800-433-8850, or email, email@example.com. Let's hear from Anna in Washington, D.C. Anna, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
ANNAThank you very much. I'm just -- a very nice person who have -- talking with you there. But I feel as though with Citizens United, it's actually a naive point of view. There is -- the amount of money pouring into Congress and the Senate for -- is so massive that even unions can't stand up to it. The -- we -- an individual can't -- we can't compete with someone who can put in $10 million into a campaign.
ANNASo I think that the effort really needs to be to try to, number one, get public financing for Congress and the Senate and for the presidential campaign, and, secondly, to -- it would be a long campaign. It will take years to do, but we must try to -- the -- end the influence of the Citizens United decision, which is terribly destructive and has led to, frankly, massive corruptions in our system and has undermined our democracy.
ROBERTSAnna, thank you for your call. Stephanie Vance, do you have a response for Anna?
VANCEWell, yeah, certainly. And you're not the first person who's pointed out that it seems like I'm pretty naive after 20-plus years in Washington, D.C., which I don't know how that happened. But I still sometimes feel a little bit like a Pollyanna, and I certainly recognize that. You know, the two points I'd make is, first of all, I, again, I know people are going to be skeptical about money in the political process. I can't erase that.
VANCEAll I ask is that people recognize that they do have a second avenue of influence, which is their role as constituents. The example I can give is that, you know, our firm helps arrange lobby days for groups. You know, someone like the Association of Museums or Libraries will come to town with hundreds of their advocates. We will set up meetings for them with their elected officials.
VANCEWe can set up 99 percent of the meetings we request -- and I'm not making up that number -- if we have a constituent in the group. All we need to do is call the office, say we have a constituent and that person can come in. So I really honestly do think citizens have a role to play, and they can be very effective in these communications. I do sometimes think, though, that citizens don't really know how to have those meetings and the framework of those meetings, and so they're not always effective as they would like.
ROBERTSSo tell them how to do it.
VANCEWell, I will.
VANCEPlease do. All right. Well, the first thing I would say is to really, you know, know your specific ask. Asking for something is extremely important. A lot of people go in and say, I think education is important, and that's a perfect license for the office to say, we agree education is great. We like people to be educated, and yet, you know, nothing comes out of that. The second is to really know the audience.
VANCEI feel as though a lot of people have their own arguments for why they think something is important. One of the tactics I outlined in "The Influence Game" is you need to know why it's important to the other person. You need to know what gets them up in the morning, what keeps them up at night, and sometimes it's not the same issues you're interested in. So if they really care about health care and you're there to talk to them about transportation, figure out a way to make those things connect: access to doctors, access to hospitals.
VANCETake a look at their biography, see what some of their background is. Are they a former public safety official? How does, you know, if we're using the transportation example, how does it relate to that? And then your message. You know, I talked about the SPIT technique, but blending that personal and informative message, I think, is absolutely critical on what citizens bring to the process.
VANCEAnd please, please make sure that you follow up. A lot of people communicate with the office. They ask once. I would say, from my experiences on Capitol Hill, about 90 percent of the people we met with would never follow up, and then they wouldn't really understand why they didn't get what they wanted. And so I think, you know, a little bit of the issue is that citizens don't recognize their power, and they don't know how to use it effectively.
ROBERTSYou say in the book that everyone should know his or her walk-away point. What do you mean by that?
VANCEWell, that's interesting. That's a story about my mother who would have made the best lobbyist ever. She's super tough. And we were in Mexico City, and she was negotiating for a beautiful embroidered denim jacket. It was the '70s, so that was an OK fashion statement at the time. And she was negotiating with one of the infamous sort of Mexico City tradespeople, which is they are very good at negotiating.
VANCEAnd they got down to between 50 cents difference, and she had decided in her mind she was not going to pay that, and so she literally started walking away. And that was her walk-away point, and the tradesperson couldn't believe it. He went chasing her down and was -- shook her hand and gave her the coat for her price. But that's what I mean by the walk-away point, and that coincides, though, with you have to be willing to compromise.
VANCEYou don't start with your compromise position. That's never a good idea 'cause you're going to have to compromise at some point. But you need to know that you're going to need to compromise, but your walk-away point does have to be something really tied to your convictions, what you think is most critical in the particular issue you're talking about.
ROBERTSSo this is sort of striking a balance between compromise and not being so malleable that you don't end up standing for anybody.
VANCEExactly, exactly. And I think, you know, that connects to what people see a lot in the campaigns in terms of the flip-flopping issue. You know, there's a balance between what your convictions are and what you believe in to your core. And then there is learning from experience. Then there is, you know, figuring out, well, this actually -- this process we used didn't work.
VANCEAnd there's a third piece there that I think people don't think about, which is your constituencies change. Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, had a different set of constituents than Mitt Romney would as president of the United States.
VANCEAnd I think we still all need to remember that it's a representative democracy and that elected officials are there to represent the needs of the people who they very specifically represent. And I think you see that with members of Congress all the time. As they shift from their House districts to the state, their views may shift a little bit, but it's often because they're representing different interests.
ROBERTSFred Bernstein had an article on Saturday's New York Times, an op-ed piece, where he said that this sort of level of retail politics that is often lauded in Congress that, you know, Sen. Pothole level of taking care of constituent services is actually not what that body should be doing, that that is actually distracting from making broader legislation that would help everybody.
ROBERTSAnd this idea that they're sort of helping -- people wanted a time, first of all, is incredibly inefficient, but it also favors people with access in English skills and education, and that that's not where Congress should be going. What's your reaction to that?
VANCEWell, you know, I always look at these things as there's, you know, how things should be and how things are. My advice in the influence game tends to be in the tactics I outlined as oriented towards how it is. And I don't necessarily disagree that changes would be appropriate to sort of downplay the retail politics. I don't think that you're going to get that though until you get less partisanship through the gerrymandering of districts at the state level. You know, do you see that the elections are closer and closer?
VANCEOne of the things I suggest to people is look at their margin of vote by which they won if you're ever going to go into an office because that will tell you a lot about whether they're able to look at a broader agenda or whether they really need to focus on the very specific needs of the district. So I'm not necessarily, you know, opposed to changes in the system that would make it more possible for elected officials to focus on a broader agenda. I just, you know, think that in the system we have, that's very difficult.
ROBERTSAnd as long as members can only focus on a few retail politics, it might as well be you.
VANCEWell, you know, hey.
VANCEWell, because, you know, we're all special interests. Everyone has a special interests if it were, you know, the -- if everyone agreed with it, it would be a common interest and there'd be no controversy. So, yeah, you know, and it's too bad all the other people are horribly misguided but...
ROBERTSLet's take a call from John in Annapolis. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," John.
JOHNYes. Thank you very much. I think you've had wonderful comments. And I agree with your approach in terms of identifying who you're attempting to get your message across to. And my comment, as somebody who spent just a brief amount of time on the receiving end of the phone calls in a congressional office, my observation would be that for someone trying to reach out from home would be to take the time to ask the person picking up the phone what they think the best method of communication might be.
JOHNDifferent offices respond well to different inputs just depending on the temperament of the congressman. Some like to get a daily recap of the phone calls and emails, while others might delegate that task to just give a general temperature on a weekly basis. And so getting an understanding of the congressman's method of receiving inputs can be very helpful to making sure your message gets delivered.
ROBERTSJohn, thank you so much for your call.
VANCEWell, yeah, absolutely. And, John, first of all, congratulations on surviving Capitol Hill. And you've highlighted two of my key tactics. One is to be nice to the staff. People try to, you know, treat them very poorly, and they're actually the most important people in the office often. And, you know, one of my tactics absolutely is ask how they like to be communicated with and then do that.
VANCEThe example -- there was a recent report that was out from a group called lobbyists.info that was talking about how congressional staff want to hear messages. And one of the things I took away from that is that they don't even want one-pagers anymore. They want 140 characters. They want sort of the more tweet-style message delivery, and the sort of way of the long extended white paper may -- maybe -- these may be bygones now.
ROBERTSAnd I don't know that that many people will mourn it.
ROBERTSWould you recommend approaching the Washington office or their constituent office?
VANCEWell, I think both are important. I think the local office can have a tremendous role in getting you into the Washington office. And again, it's that finding the influencers. They influence the D.C. office. Building a good relationship with them is going to get you in good with the D.C. office. So I say both. If you start with the local office, ask them if they can make an introduction to the D.C. office 'cause again, that will be a great way to get you in the door and be taken seriously.
ROBERTSWe have an email from Vera in Olney, who says, "Any advice on how one can lobby their representatives to submit a bill on congressional term limits? It seems that the idea would be counterintuitive if one's an elected official."
VANCEThat is an excellent point, and I -- it's interesting. I am personally not a huge fan of term limits. I tend to think that we do have a term limited voting. That said, you know, I recognized people think that, you know, that it's very hard to get incumbents out even through the voting process. The other challenge I have with term limits is that it gives a tremendous amount of power to the staff that, you know, they become the folks who know the institution inside and out.
VANCEThat said, I do think that starting with elected officials before they are elected, looking at them in the campaigns, seeing who's willing to make a pledge to serve only two or three terms will, you know, those will be the folks who would introduce term limit bills. You know, there would be also constitutional concerns about that that would need to be addressed. But I think that those are some of the ways, you know, to start with them. Get them when they're young, I guess, is the...
VANCE...indoctrinate them early to the term limits idea.
ROBERTSWe're running out of time, but I want to give you a chance to rehabilitate the reputations of lobbyists. These are people who are seen as influence peddlers, corrupt, maybe even, you know, blackmailers on some level. What -- is there such a thing as ethical lobbying?
VANCEWell, it's funny 'cause I say that, you know, my book is about ethical lobbying without manipulation or bribery and that it's a short book. But, you know, I think that the best lobbyists are the ones that are looking at this for the long term. It's not manipulation. It's influence. And manipulation is when you try to get something that doesn't benefit the other side. Influence is really a win-win situation. And I honestly think that's what special interests in D.C., the good ones, are doing. There are certainly bad examples.
VANCEBut if you think about it in your own life, you are a special interest if you're a member of the AAA, the AARP, the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Chamber. All of those are special interests, and you are part of them, and they are certainly helping your voice be heard in Washington, D.C. And that's not a bad thing.
ROBERTSStephanie Vance is the co-founder of Advocacy Associates, a D.C.-based consulting firm. She's a former lobbyist and congressional aide. And her latest book is called "The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington D.C. Lobbying World that Will Get You to Yes." Thank you so much for being here.
ROBERTSWe are coming up next hour with Sam Kean. His new book is called "The Violinist's Thumb." And it's an exploration of what our genetic code can tell us about ourselves, our lives, our future and, in fact, our pasts. So stay tuned the next hour for Sam Kean and "The Violinist's Thumb." I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you so much for being with us this hour and please stay with us. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo hears some of the "worn stories" behind the clothes we wear, and explores why clothing carries meaning far beyond fashion.
We explore the ripple effects of the U.S. scientific funding crunch with the president of Johns Hopkins University and leaders in the funding and biomedical research fields.
Kojo explores the creative business strategies fueling America's boom in fast-casual dining - and why food has become one of the engines for innovation in the American economy.