Don't be intimidated by government officials, says New Jersey State Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin, who explains how to establish relationships effectively
Amy H. Handlin has a unique perspective as both a marketing professor and a New Jersey state assemblywoman. In her three terms in state office, Handlin has seen small business owners become effective advocates with government, and she has seen them miss opportunities. In her new book, “Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government,” she outlines some dos and don'ts. Handlin spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Karen E. Klein: Do small business owners contact you frequently?
Yes. The thing I've learned is that, while all businesses are powerfully affected by government, small businesses are particularly vulnerable. If you're a large company, the size and diversity of your operations will dilute the impact of a county sales tax or a town building restriction. But for many small businesses, learning to lobby government is a survival skill.
Do many of them fail to develop that skill?
Some are intimidated by the trappings of power—the fancy titles and gold domes. Others don't know where to begin or don't believe their advocacy will serve a purpose. There's a pervasive myth that you can't fight city hall, and it's simply not true. But lobbying needs to be done strategically. There's a difference between purposeless venting and a thoughtful move to influence government. But you can get heard and taken seriously with a reasonable amount of time and energy.
Do most entrepreneurs contact their representatives only in a crisis?
Overwhelmingly, which is a shame. It is a very low-risk, high-return investment to develop relationships with officials before you have a problem.
What's the right way to go about making those relationships?
You want to target the right person, select the right communication tools with which to approach them, and shape a message that will get their attention.
First, you have to know who is in a position to influence your business and in which ways. That's a matter of research. In the same way you wouldn't introduce a new product without researching the market, you shouldn't try to get involved in the advocacy business without researching who does what in state and local government and in the agencies, authorities, boards, and commissions that make important decisions.
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