You don’t have to be a political insider to wield influence like one. The following tips will help you make the most of your visits with elected leaders, whether you’re meeting with members of Congress in Washington, DC, elected leaders in your statehouse, or city and county officials in your hometown.
Before You Go. Before calling on any elected leader, learn about the issues from a national or a state perspective so you can provide a larger context for your story about public transportation in your community. The more you know, the more effective you’ll be.
Think through a few anecdotes about your system and riders so you can make facts and talking points come to life. How does your system serve people who would be unable to get to work, school, or medical appointments? How does your system support local businesses? What’s your message about energy and the environment? How many jobs does your agency or business provide or support?
Understand their unique position as public servants. Elected officials must juggle competing priorities for increasingly scare public funds. Your advocacy will be more powerful when you emphasize the critical importance of public transportation to all voters, not just your riders or customers.
Make sure you’ve identified the staff person who specializes in public transportation. On Capitol Hill, the “right person” might seem junior because of his or her young age. Remember that committee staffers at all levels of government are well informed, exercise a great deal of influence, and serve as gatekeepers.
Plan your visit carefully by being sure of your objectives. Getting acquainted, building rapport, and conveying information are all important objectives. Not every visit will—or should—be focused on funding or regulations.
Make an appointment by working through a scheduler, explain your purpose, state the system or business you represent, and be prepared to wait a few weeks to get on the official’s calendar.
During Your Visit. Be focused, flexible, and punctual. Schedules change frequently and your 30-minute meeting could easily turn into a five-minute meeting, so it’s always wise to begin with your most important point. If your meeting is interrupted or cut short, be pleasant and say a speedy good-bye. They will remember your graciousness the next time you ask for a meeting.
Avoid getting drawn into a political debate, even if the official or staffer expresses a position that is contrary to your own. Simply stick to the facts, stay on message, and remain unflappable. Try to spend time with officials whose political affiliations are different from yours. By engaging in conversations with these leaders, you have the opportunity to present a different perspective that can strengthen understanding and diminish opposition.
Offer some personal anecdotes to support your points and make your request—such as sponsor a bill, sign a letter, or support a position—if that’s your goal. Make sure you’re clear about the action for which you’re advocating.
Set aside your assumptions about politics and partisanship. Public transportation typically enjoys support from both sides of the political aisle (even if it is expressed in different ways), so it’s usually safe to assume that a legislator will listen to your request. Look for common values, work to build on effective communications, and take advantage of the situation to demonstrate your expertise.
Go to the meeting prepared with concise, on-point materials to leave behind—nothing voluminous or hard to read. Think user-friendly, with charts, and graphs, and have extra copies for staff.
As the meeting winds down, leave your contact information, gather their contact information, and thank them for their time.
After You Leave. Thank the legislator and staffer formally with a follow-up note, preferably handwritten, and send information they’ve requested. A personal thank you and prompt follow-up keeps the lines of communications open and works wonders in paving the way for your next visit. And be sure to add legislators to your mailing lists for publications, press releases, email notices, and other communications vehicles your organization distributes publicly.
But the most important follow-up activity you can do is to invite your elected leaders and their key staff members to your operations. Lawmakers at all levels take notice when they visit your plants and workplaces to see for themselves the number of people public transportation employs and get a better understanding of the industry’s complex network of suppliers, manufacturers, and public transit systems.
Remember that each visit you make should be part of a larger strategy to inform and learn, advocate and listen, and strengthen existing alliances and forge new ones.