By Steve Arthur, Vice President
A year ago, I wrote about the importance of trade associations for a successful state government relations strategy. As that blog made clear, I am a big proponent of supporting state trade associations to promote a given industry and to fend off destructive legislation or adverse administrative actions.
But what happens if an industry doesn’t have a state trade association, or doesn’t have the resources to have a presence in every state? The bills won’t stop being introduced just because a trade association doesn’t exist. In fact, they are all the more likely to proliferate because without a trade association there is no strong network of connections to convey an industry’s perspective as legislation is being crafted.
One option is to join a broad-based trade association that may be an umbrella group for businesses, such as a Chamber of Commerce, and rely on them to watch out for and vocalize a given set of issue-based interests. State and local Chambers provide an important service in advocating for broad-based business issues, but they may not be appropriate when your issue is narrow and may conflict with other industry (or even just your competitors’) business interests.
In other cases, an issue may be broader than a given industry or other business membership group is ready to engage on. What that leaves is a false sense of security, because there will be more “boots on the ground” working members of a Legislature for an issue that may not necessarily be much of a benefit if the interested parties are not closely coordinating their actions.
You may be thinking the answer is simple in both cases: just create a coalition. And you would be right. A coalition of like-minded interests can be the best vehicle for legislative success on a particular issue, even if the partners in the coalition don’t agree on or have conflicting views on other issues. Therefore, how that coalition is created and how it is run can be the difference between success and failure. Creating a partnership or coalition can be far more complicated than gathering individual companies (for the narrow issue) or trade associations (for the broader issues) and dividing up lists of legislators and determining who will lobby each one. While this might work on occasion, it can lead to a disjointed effort and conflicting messages being shared with legislators, which could make your argument much less compelling to the legislature overall.
Coalitions can also be used for proactive purposes as well. For new and emerging industries without a developed association network, educating elected officials about that industry can be the only necessary outcome for a coalition. In this case, the coalition can be made up of those few (or one) companies in the new industry, plus their suppliers or customers that have an interest in industry growth. In this case, the messaging among the coalition may be simpler, but it is no less important that everyone stay on the same message. If legislators are hearing about a new industry for the first time, it is probably even more important that they are hearing a consistent message.
How to Create a Successful Coalition
To give your coalition the greatest chance for success, there are several rules that should be followed that will improve your odds:
Broaden the Coalition
Make your coalition broad enough for legislators to see the issue as a public policy issue, not a special interest issue. Having 50 widget makers is important, but can you bring widget users on board? Could the issue be supported by the union that represents your employers? Are there environmental benefits that may bring an environmental group on board? The number of coalition members is less important than the interests that your coalition members represent. If all the coalition members only have relationships with the same five legislators, that is not going to help get a message out very effectively. Review existing relationships of the coalition before moving forward.
Define Your Message – And Stick To It
While coalition members may have a common goal, they may have different reasons for getting to that goal. Hash out those common messages within the coalition first, so all members are making the same arguments. When legislators talk to each other about your issue, they need to be repeating the same message, not separate messages from the various coalition members. This doesn’t mean each coalition member can’t make their own arguments beyond the shared messages, they just need to be sure they are consistent with the overall message. When the coalition goal is education, it is even more critical that the messaging is consistent and simple. While discussions can get into the weeds, make sure you can define your key messages in three or four bullet points.
Know Your Fallback Strategy
This is not to argue that you should compromise early, but to make sure your coalition messaging is appropriate. Without knowing what a potential fallback position might be, the initial arguments made by individual coalition members might not be consistent with an ultimate position that needs to be taken by the coalition. Successful coalitions know their objective and keep everyone focused on the arguments that will advance that objective for the entire coalition, even when negotiations are necessary.
Broaden the Lobbyist Reach
One of the big advantages of working with a coalition is the ability to broaden the network of lobbyists used for the issue. But it is amazing how often I have worked with a coalition where the coalition agrees to hire a lobbyist as a group and they will hire one of the coalition partner’s lobbyists because “she already knows the issue.” Just as mentioned above in the broadening the coalition point, it is important to know what relationships all the lobbyists in the coalition have with elected officials.
Making sure coalition members are regularly keeping each other informed about their progress is critical to success. Whether one holds in person meetings, phone calls or even just e-mail updates; the key is to make sure everyone is reporting on progress and the leader of the coalition can tell where gaps may be developing. Without regular accountability, the coalition is likely to fall apart or be a coalition in name only. Commitments for action are important, following through on those commitments is the only thing that really matters.
When determining how to engage in a state, a coalition could be the right answer in many circumstances. A trade association is almost always going to be your best bet for long term ongoing representation for an industry. But when fighting a particularly bad policy or building awareness of a newer industry that doesn’t have the bandwidth to sustain an association, a coalition may be the best path.
Many coalitions will hire a lobbyist, a public relations company or a government relations firm to manage the coalition and to take the lead on making sure the steps outlined above get done. Whether managed internally or handled by an outside entity, successful coalitions don’t just happen. They take planning and a commitment to execute, but the results can be so much better than trying to go it alone.