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With 72,000 associations, more than 4,000 political action committees, and nearly 17,000 people vying for the time and attention of members of Congress, how do we know when our efforts are making an impact?
We spend our association members’ money on media and messaging, hire staff to go to Congress, engage grassroots constituents back home to talk up the issues, raise money for candidate re-elections, and spend countless hours at coalition meetings on strategy, but so do all of the other groups seeking to educate, persuade and influence Capitol Hill. And that doesn’t include all the law firms and PR agencies whose staffs walk the corridors of power.
How do we measure our true influence?
Certainly, you can use a matrix to examine your “win/lose” record, or the number of times you meet individually with lawmakers, or how many association issue papers are left in congressional offices. But real influence is having the representative and staff really know and care about your organization as revealed by these five questions:
1. Does the representative and staff keep my association “top of mind”? Could I rank myself or my organization in the top-10 best friends with the representative or key staff?
2. Will the member of Congress or staff proactively reach out to my organization for critical information before taking action on an issue? Do you hear from the office regularly – by phone and email, and do they search you out at events? Do Hill staff want to know your position without you having to provide it before a committee hearing, conference meeting or before a vote?
3. Does the representative and staff stay in close touch with your membership back home? Does he or she proactively talk about your association members’ meetings during district work periods when you and your staff see them in Washington?
4. Is the member of Congress and staff using language that “frames” your association’s issue in everyday conversation? While at NAB, I remember having a meeting on Capitol Hill where an unsympathetic Hill staffer referred to our issue as the “performance tax,” which was the way we defined the broadcasters’ battle to prevent the record labels from imposing a fee on radio stations that play music. Experiences like those demonstrated how we successfully “framed” the issue and how it would be understood – advantage NAB.
5. Will the representative and staff be concerned about the consequences of being against my organization? As a former Hill staffer, my job was to determine the cost/benefit to my boss if we supported or opposed a particular organization. That’s why groups such as the AFL-CIO, National Rifle Association, AARP or the US Chamber and others exercise influence on Capitol Hill because they effectively communicate congressional positions with their members.
It takes time to have this depth of support in Congress. But it is what we should all strive for to have real influence as public policy debates move forward.
Rehr is the former CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. He is an adjunct professor in the political management graduate school at George Washington U. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.