NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In terms of policy, Tuesday's election can have vastly different consequences on the regulatory and tax fronts. But one thing won't change. On the tactical front, the same essential best practices will continue to apply for any business seeking to advance its interests via direct outreach to elected officials.
The following discussion with former House Speaker Dennis Hastert is thus as pertinent today as it will be during the next election cycle or the one after that. It is excerpted from the recently published book,
The Communicators: Leadership in an Age of Crisis
, by Richard S. Levick and Charlie Slack.
Former Speaker Hastert puts it succinctly: "In government, knowledge is power."
The ability to bring specifics to a discussion on a proposed bill separates policy-shapers from everyone else in Washington. As such, the knowledge that you as a corporate leader possess about your company, your industry, and compelling business and employment trends has tangible value to legislators who hope to speak with authority and thereby enhance their own positions as people to be heeded, according to Hastert. In Hastert's case, his mastering the issues helped him attain and then hold the position of Speaker longer than any Republican in U.S. history.
"If you frame your argument to empower them, you can educate
legislators about a certain aspect
of a bill and give them the background to understand something better. That's power they can use
to help shape the process," says Hastert, who left the House in 2007 and now serves as Senior Advisor to the Washington law firm Dickstein Schapiro. This honest exchange of information and ideas will advance the interests of your company even as you empower the lawmakers.
To build the necessary trust for such a relationship, leaders boil down the art and science of communications to its absolute essence: one person speaking openly and directly with another. Too often corporate leaders damage their chances from the outset by misreading the needs and motives of legislators, by asking for help without offering knowledge in return, or by simply forgetting to acknowledge and understand the human being behind the title.
"They might have a title, but they are people," Hastert says. "They have families, mortgages, responsibilities, and they try to do the best they can with the time they have." In more than 20 years in the House, Hastert saw the best and worst tactics and strategies when it came to how business leaders try to make themselves heard in Washington. Based on that experience, he offers the following suggestions:
Minimize pomp and circumstance.
Hastert believes executives rely too heavily on elaborate gestures and formalities when engaging politicians. "Sometimes a cup of coffee does as much good as a whole dinner," Hastert says. "A lot of people feel like they've got to come in and impress and over-persuade. They want to impress people with their knowledge of politics. Politicians can see through that like anyone else. Most people can spot a phony.
"If you really want to make an impression, you take a person at face value, sit down, and talk to them. You don't have to tell them what your degrees are in or how powerful you are. You're there because you want to effect a change. Explain why."
Make friends before making requests.
"Just touching base can be important," Hastert says. "It doesn't hurt, when you're in Washington, to pick out a couple of people you want to see. Tell them why your business is important to their area, and don't ask for anything. Then, when you want something or need their help, at least you've built that relationship."
Get to know their staff.
Given the number of constituents with whom politicians must deal, they are totally reliant on their staffs to steer them toward whatever must get their attention soonest. If you convince the chief of staff that your matter has important implications, you'll have the ear of the legislator.
Know the politician's story.
"As most CEOs know, any success you can have depends on how you related to somebody," Hastert comments. It seems elemental to do a bit of background but, in his years in Congress, Hastert was always surprised at the number of CEOs who came to Washington intent on making themselves heard and achieving their corporate goals - without first bothering to learn the backgrounds of the people with whom they were dealing even though they were lobbying on issues critical to their businesses.
"You have to really understand two things: where this person's come from and why they're there," adds Hastert. "It gives you a frame of reference for how to deal with them and how to communicate. Secondly, look at the committees they're on and what they are trying to do. Try to frame your own objectives within the context of what their goals are."
While Republicans and Democrats may view issues from divergent perspectives, in the end most are seeking answers that benefit their constituents, Hastert says. Without being deceptive or disingenuous in the least, you can tailor your argument accordingly. "If you're talking to a Democrat, you might want to talk about creating jobs. If you're talking to somebody who's pretty conservative, you might want to talk about the free enterprise system.
"So it behooves you to know who you're talking to and what their background is, and frame it all around how you're going to create the better good."