Understanding effective lobbying

by wonderfullyrich on May 15, 2010

Two blogs in one week after such a dry spell, it’s crazy I know, but I’m feeling in the mood to write these days.

I wanted to highlight  a few things based on my experience at FCNL, in DC/Congress, and in my understanding of human nature from this excerpt of this article in the NY Times about Bank Debit Fees being limited. (Underline emphasis added by me.)

The Senate approved a series of amendments unfavorable to the banking industry over the last week, but this one was widely regarded as the most surprising. Meddling in dealings between businesses generally is anathema to Republicans and a relatively low priority for Democrats.

And this was not an easy vote. Lobbyists for the wounded but formidable banking industry made clear to some senators that this decision would affect future campaign donations, according to people who participated in those conversations.

But retailers mounted an unusually effective yearlong campaign to frame the issue as a chance for Congress to help small business. A leading trade group for chain retailers worked with small-business groups to make sure that every time a senator held a town hall meeting back home, a local business owner showed up to ask about card fees.

The industry also rode the support of Senator Richard J. Durbin, the Democratic whip, who wrote the amendment and pushed the sponsor of the banking overhaul bill, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, to allow a vote on the Senate floor.

The winning margin was provided by several conservative Republicans. Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, told SunTrust, the largest bank in his state, that this time he planned to vote against the bank and with Coca-Cola and Home Depot, two other Georgia companies that had lobbied him fiercely.

“This was really a decision between helping out small business or helping out large banks,” said John Emling, a lobbyist for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “No one wanted to pick between friends and they had friends on both sides, but because of the momentum, we just felt that if Durbin pushed folks to the vote we would win.”

Part of what this article is describing is what FCNL and other similar lobbying organizations try to teach there members and try to affect regularly.  The Retails Industry Leaders Association, change the forum of debate by “framing the issue.” It’s a buzz phrase that you hear regularly in D.C. and one my old boss Jim Cason loves, and he’s right.  In addition to using multi-path communication and persuasion based on their advantages (which I’ll talk about later), the RILA changed what staffers and there senators were comparing.  Whether or not it succeeds in the House, it’s an ideal chance to talk about framing and the other parts of effective lobbying.

Rather then looking at the Bank industry’s impact on the economy and how it’s fair to them (given it cost something to maintain the debit card system), the RILA put in terms of the retailer’s much larger effect  on the Senators voting constituent.  Small businesses employ over half US population, so it’s a very, very large base.  The fees at issue may directly impact the profits of the banks, but with the bail-out and sentiment in general being very low for banks, this is a perfect opportunity for retailers to point out that these fees have a far larger proportional impact on people then does the bank’s dividends and it’s employment base.

A point of psychology to remember, and one that makes the framing that I just did in the previous paragraph so important, is that humans make irrational decision because of the way our brain perceives and processes information.  It’s call cognitive bias, and in particular we are biased in the way we compare things.  This is referred to as the Framing effect, and it means when you receive information, you compare it and make decisions based on perceived loss and gain, but that we rate a loss higher then we do gains.  Although the options might be equal from a purely quantitative or qualitative point of view, we will choose differently based on the description of both options. In this way, although congress is indeed swayed by rational arguments in a one page fact sheet, the staffers and the Senators will be swayed by a “superior” framing of an issue.   In this particular case your perception of loss on the part of the banks should be smaller then the perceived loss of the larger group of retailers, even though we are talking about the same money in both cases. The shining glass monuments of banks can deal with it but the struggling mom and pop shop on the corner can’t.  I may feel this way but it’s perception not fact when I speak in those connotatively driven terms.

Another point of psychology worth remembering that psychologically speaking, we forget things regularly. Your brain is designed to forget things as much as it’s designed to remember them, and it’s a mechanism that works to your advantage, as you forget the things you don’t need (a smaller database is easier to search then a larger one).  If you are not reminded of something within your forgetting interval then it’s generally gone (with a few major exceptions).  You can more effectively be reminded of something by getting it from multiple sources, i.e. a letter from one person, a conversation with another, maybe a cute toy that you associate with it, an odd jingle that goes with it, etc.  In this way, if the staffer and his Senator hear about an item from multiple-paths on a radio news show, by his staffer, as a letter to the editor, in the town hall meetings he attends, a object or toy that keys to the issue (debit card), during lobby visits he sits in on, from his fellow Senators, etc. they are more likely to take action or feel action can be taken.  This is particularly true in the case of Congress in general, as over the last 10+ years the amount of communication has increased 10 fold while the staffing to organize and deal with such communication has remained at the same level as 30 years ago.  They have a lot to forget and a finite amount of brain space to put it in.

The RILA took advantage of this and used a multi-path communication campaign aimed at the senators.  The retailers leveraged there mass and distribution of people throughout the country to make this Senatorially unpopular issue into one that senators took note of, and after a year long campagain the Senators felt it had momentum.  This is particularly significant as it indicates they were looking at it not from a strictly rational point of view, but rather were responding to the sentiments of the retailers and there fellow senators in a more emotional way.  Incrementally, they began to believe this was an issue that was important and therefore it became important.

In spite of this daunting task of engaging congress and changing laws/policies, one of the things I took away from D.C. before I left was a belief that you can change an issue as an individual.  The big “but” to this is, it can take years of your life to make it happen.  I’ve seen it at FCNL, I’ve read about it, and we’ve just seen it again.  You literally have to make your own luck, which is exactly what happen here.  By using the large base of people at there disposal, the retailers lobbying organization kept lobing different shiny things at the monkeys until they all picked up there nugget.

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