In a recent Gallup Poll gauging public perception of honesty and ethics across 21 different professions, lobbyists ranked last. This suggests a high familiarity with the term “lobbyist” but not the important work they do. Most people dread filing their taxes each April because the forms are so complex, yet that is often their only experience with the convoluted way the government operates. Venturing further into this world of rules and regulations and policies and procedures is something that most people would prefer to avoid. This common reaction is often driven by lack of exposure. Below are three of the most common misunderstandings, and the negative effect that they have on the success of your organization.
1. "Government Relations does no good and is morally questionable."
At its core, government relations bridges the gap between government decision-makers and the many constituents they serve. While it would be ideal for every government official to spend time understanding every citizen's concerns in their district, state, or industry, it just isn’t possible. Take Wyoming as an example. Even in the least-populated state, Wyoming’s single congressman is responsible for representing the interests and concerns of an astounding 568,300 people. California's 53 Members of Congress represent 704,566 constituents each. For a Member of Congress to hear from every constituent in his or her district, that equates to starting a new conversation with a new person every 10 seconds. Of course, that doesn’t count the time Members of Congress need to be in Washington, DC to vote on bills or participate in committee hearings, so the number is probably more like one new conversation every two or three seconds.
As Secretary of State George Shultz famously once said, “Trust is the coin of the realm.” Government relations professionals know their business is based on reputation and, by extension, truth and trust. No government relations professional can succeed without these fundamental values. If any fact is misrepresented by a lobbyist to a government official, even by mistake, that lobbyist will struggle to be heard again.
Government relations allows individuals, non-profit organizations, colleges and universities, as well as small and large businesses alike to group their voices together so their messages are heard by decision makers. As a result, government officials are able to better serve their constituents and stay in tune with ever-changing issues.
2. “Government Relations does not affect my business.”
Having this viewpoint is one of the worst mistakes an organization can make. Most simply, it is a lack of awareness regarding the impact the government has on your organization or that you can have on the government. Many organizations will simply accept the government’s burden as a fact, like the force of gravity, and deal with it. Whether realizing a tax break or making government programs work for your organization, a government relations strategy can have a strong impact on your long-term success. Without such a strategy, your organization is in a vulnerable position where reacting, as opposed to preparing, is the only option.
There is also a competitive dynamic to government relations. Whether the targeted outcome is increased sales to the government or reduced regulation by the government, your competitors are probably already moving. If you aren’t active with a government relations strategy, your competitors are moving ahead of you.
3. "Only big, self-interested companies use lobbyists."
When some people hear the word "lobbyist", they envision a smoky room full of politicians, captains of industry, and bags of money. This image is far from reality but is tied to the negative view of lobbyists, and excludes some of the people who benefit from lobbying the most. Looking back at the Gallup poll, nurses and teachers ranked first and fourth, respectively, of the most ethical and honest professions. These professions are represented by two of the most active lobbying interest groups. Nurses benefit from the work of the American Nurses Association, which spent $1,219,823 on lobbying in 2015 alone. Similarly, teachers are represented by the National Education Association, who spent over $2.4 million in lobbying in 2015.
Even if you are not a teacher or a nurse, chances are that you have already benefited from the work of a lobbyist. For example, think of your alma mater. Most colleges and universities employ entire government relations teams, including at least one—if not an entire group—of registered lobbyists to promote the school's funding needs and to facilitate partnerships with government agencies. You could also consider your hometown. The City of Cleveland, for example, has employed two lobbying firms just in 2015. Lobbyists play a significant role in just about every sector of society whether it be private, for-profit businesses or a public entity like the City of Cleveland.
Interested in learning more about how government relations can help your organization?