To Guide Your Business Climate, Get Involved Locally

The elections are over; the table is set; the players are now known. But while the priorities of the nation's leaders can make the economy rise and fall, day in and

The elections are over; the table is set; the players are now known. But while the priorities of the nation's leaders can make the economy rise and fall, day in and day out, your profits are more likely affected by laws and regulations passed closer to home.

“Issues at the city and state level are often more important to business owners than issues at the federal level,” notes Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, New York City.

Here's some good news: You can get the local mechanism running in a way that grows your profits.

All politics is local. Decisions made by your local politicians can have a dramatic impact on your business profits. How can you affect those decisions?

“Start by learning how your local government operates,” suggests Al Arnold, director of the Academy of Local Politics, Rice Lake, WI. “Politics is a game. In order to be successful in any game, you need to know the rules.”

He advises attending one local government meeting each year to “watch, listen and learn by observation” how local government works. “One meeting won't make anyone an expert, but over the years you will become more knowledgeable about your local officials and how they work.”

Learn how your town develops its annual budget — the pivotal document for taking action. “A city budget isn't just a financial document,” Arnold explains. “It's a policy document.” Where tax money is being spent, or not spent, gives a clear indication about your city council's priorities.

All politics are personal. Personal networking is a powerful tool for influencing local laws. “All politics are personal,” says Nancy Bocskor, a political consultant in Arlington, VA. “Even in our modern world of e-mail, getting things done still comes down to whom you have a relationship with.”

In developing relationships, make the telephone your friend. “Call your local politicians at the city and state level and meet with them,” Ploeger suggests. “These politicians are looking for ways to help constituents. They don't know how to do that if you don't speak up.” If you remain hidden, your politicians may well vote in ways that unintentionally harm your business.

Don't wait until you have concerns before meeting with your local representatives, Ploeger adds. “Your politicians will often have issues they are grappling with and they need to talk with business people about the effects of certain regulations.”

Developing a relationship can mean more than phone calls and meetings. Consider hosting a fundraising event. “Help a politician raise money by having a coffee in your home,” Bocskor suggests. “Offer to invite your friends, neighbors and colleagues over to listen to the candidate.”

For more tips about getting the job done, see the section, “How to talk with a local politician,” at the end of this article.

Stay informed. New local issues come up all the time. Many of them can affect your business operations. Don't rely on the local newspaper to learn about them.

“Newspapers normally report on what has happened, not what might happen,” Arnold says. “And if they do report on what might happen, it might not be what you're interested in. There's only one way to keep on top of proposed local government issues, and that's by following committee agendas.”

Learn which committees are likely to deal with business issues. “Find out where agendas for committee meetings are posted,” Arnold suggests. “Many times they're on the town website. Make a point of following these agendas on a regular (monthly if not weekly) basis. This is the only way to catch issues before votes are taken.”

Offer your input as early as possible. Will proposed legislation or regulation have unanticipated consequences? Call and let your politicians know.

“Issues are like rolling snowballs,” Arnold says. “They get bigger and bigger with time. It's easier to destroy a hand-sized snowball.”

The power of numbers. On the state level, the best way to follow issues is to belong to an organization that does this for you.

“If your business has a statewide association, pay the dues and belong to it,” Arnold suggests. “If there's no such association, join an independent business group of some kind to get your information. And when your association asks you to respond to a ‘call to action’ on an important issue, do so.”

Running a business leaves you only so much time to communicate with your politicians. So leverage your relationships with organizations that can help communicate your message.

“Your local chamber of commerce will often talk with political leaders,” Ploeger notes. Many chambers have legislative directors or advocacy managers. Usually the presidents of the chamber are involved with that aspect.”

Attend or volunteer to serve on the chamber committee that is responsible for developing positions on local political issues.

Get involved. Effective lobbying is a process, not a destination. Don't expect your representatives to agree with you all the time. But over time, if you participate in small ways by attending meetings and voicing your opinions, you can have an influential voice when a really big issue arises.

“You have to be a citizen activist,” Bocskor says. “When you're not involved, it's amazing how fast laws are passed that have unintended consequences.”

Don't let that happen. Reach out to your local politicians and you'll end up with a more productive business environment.

“I get so angry when people say they're too busy,” Arnold says. “You can't be too busy to not follow what government is doing to regulate your business.”

How to talk with a local politician. “Meeting with an official once or twice a year should be part of every management plan,” says Sean W. Hadley, a Princeton, NJ attorney and lobbyist. Like any other networking event, a meeting with a politician can pay many dividends to your business.

You can approach local politicians with words such as these: “I have a business in your district. I want to come in and introduce myself and talk with you.”

Here are some tips for being effective:

  • Speak up. Be professional and voice your opinion as soon as you find out about an issue.

  • Be nice. “Local elected officials appreciate timely, courteous input on issues,” Hadley says. “However, all too often, the input is neither timely nor courteous.”

  • Show thanks. If your representative makes a vote you agree with on an issue, send a letter or e-mail, or call to express your appreciation. “It's so very seldom that they receive one of those. It will be remembered.”

  • Stay in problem-solving mode. “Know exactly what you are asking for,” Hadley suggests. “Have a solution ready.”

  • Invite officials to visit. Ask your local officials to tour your facility, meet your employees and have a group picture taken. “Especially if you have a significant number of employees, politicians are happy to appear at an event like that,” Hadley says.

  • Donate. In politics, money talks, Hadley says. “It doesn't buy you results, but it can help facilitate a relationship.”

    If a politician approaches you about attending a fundraiser on his behalf, it's well worth it on a reasonable basis. Later, when you have an issue, you have a “go-to” politician you can call for assistance.

  • Be courteous. “Politicians don't like to be ambushed or surprised,” Hadley warns. “So be courteous at all times.”

    Tell your politician if you're going to say something negative publicly. “Make sure he or she is in the loop,” Hadley says. “Politicians have long memories.”

  • Be cordial. Don't make threats such as “I won't vote for you if you won't do this.” Don't say, “I pay your salary.” Confrontations of this nature backfire, Hadley notes.

  • Start early and be patient. Most important, speak up. “If you don't call your officials, your voice won't be heard and you run the risk of laws imposed on you without your knowing,” Hadley says. “It's easier to stop the train from leaving the station than it is when it's racing down the tracks. So tell your politicians, ‘Keep this train in the station!’
-- Phillip M. Perry