Dear Teachers, Friends of Teachers, and Champions of Education:
I don’t have to tell you that the road to getting the State of Oklahoma to single out your issue for funding is going to be hard. But I almost pity the poor legislators, who drive low-mileage, late-model cars, who think they’ll be able to make the poor teachers, with their 1998 Toyota Camrys, buckle after just a couple of days of hardship. Teachers in Oklahoma eat hardship for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
And then they go grade papers until bedtime.
I wanted to share with you some facts on how to be a model lobbyist (that’s what you are now) for the cause of education. Or anything. The first section are things to keep in mind about the Oklahoma Capitol and how it works, and the second part is how to navigate introductions and how to make your case. Call this Basic Lobbying 101.
I. So you’ve gotten into the Capitol. You’ve left your signs and most of your righteous indignation outside with colleagues before you went through the metal detector. What do you do now?
- Legislators are just people — like you and I. Most of them have another job. Some are attorneys, former non-profit employees, teachers (YES, teachers), dentists, pharmacists, etc. Just be your normal personable self.
- Look for the lapel pin — a round, Oklahoma state emblem on the left-lapel about the size of a quarter signifies that you’re in the presence of an actual legislator, which is RARE, especially now. Male pins are unadorned while females are encircled in small crystals.
- No need to knock on any office doors. All offices are a series of doors — don’t worry about walking in somewhere you shouldn’t be. They post men in green or maroon jackets outside those doors. Just walk through the door with the label or tag with the name of the legislator you’re seeking — the legislative assistant is likely on the other side waiting to greet you.
- Never make up information. If you do not know the answer to their question or are not comfortable answering their query, try out one of the following:
- “Hmmm…that’s an interesting perspective. I never really thought about it that way. Let me go research that and get back to you. What would be the best way to reach you when I have that information?”
- “To be honest, I’m not sure. But let me look into that and get back with you. What would be the best way to follow up with you?”
- Relate it to home. Legislators are there to represent their district. If you are their constituent, let them know that and how this issue is related to/affecting people in your mutual home area.
- If you don’t meet your legislator — remember to still share your message with their legislative assistant. Or if you’re the oil industry lobby, you share barbequed chicken with the entire Capitol, which they did via big smokers outside the week before the school closure began. You want to be an honest broker of true and factual information. Your particular experience, in a short sound bite, might be just the right words to make an impression that will last.
II. So let’s assume you actually spotted someone with the distinctive plumage (and that round lapel pin) that’s an actual legislator. What now, genius?
- Introducing yourself to a legislator — if you are a constituent in his/her district, lead with that information. “Hi, my name is John Smith and I’m one of your constituents. Do you have a minute?”
- If the legislative assistant is present, politely introduce yourself and ask to speak with the representative/senator. If you are a constituent, this is another opportunity to mention that information. “Hi, my name is Jane Doe and I’m Representative Smith’s constituent. Is he available for just a few minutes?”
- If the legislative assistant is not present and the legislator is in their personal office with the door open (and not on the phone or with someone else), politely walk in and introduce yourself, tell them you are a constituent and ask if they have a minute. In normal situations (not like a teacher walkout or anything), it’ll be exceedingly rare to be told no.
- So you’re there, in the office…Thank them for their time and assure them you’ll be brief. “Thank you, Representative Smith, for your time. I know you must be incredibly busy so I will be brief.”
- Lead with common ground. “Taking care of Oklahoma’s children is so important to both of us, and that’s why I stopped by today.”
- How can you help them (to help you)? “I wanted to thank you for your service to our corner of Oklahoma and I know the funding issues you’re struggling with haven’t happened overnight…” If you have talking points, in your own words, of course, this is the time to put ’em out there. The key again is to be reasonable and don’t unload on the legislator — you want him/her to remember you as reasonable and someone who will tell the truth always. “So please feel free to reach out if I can be of any assistance.” Leave a business card.
- Thank them for their time. Again. “Thank you again for this few minutes and please do reach out and let us know how we can be of service.”
That’s about it. With any luck, you’re now seen as someone who isn’t there with pitchforks and torches, ready to overturn their little private club. If they’re unreasonable, then that’s a topic for another day — when you’re back in your District talking with your neighbors and relating your experiences with Representative Smith.
Maybe after a few of these visits, you realize that YOU have what it takes to take a turn and chase after your very own round Oklahoma lapel pin…