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Paul Willging Says...

September 1, 2005
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Politics Is a Part of Marketing, Too

Politics is a part of marketing, too Last month we talked about marketing your facility to the community at large. Let's talk now about yet another aspect of community involvement: working the political arena. Let's talk about politics.

Let's talk about lobbying, which is, after all, just another form of marketing-the goals don't differ, only the venue. The lobbyist's primary goal is to "market" certain approaches to issues, in this case through the legislative or regulatory processes. For the "grassroots" lobbyist (this means you), that entails providing legislators and regulators with local insights and personal experiences in matters of industry concern. To succeed at this, you need to understand how to navigate your way through the political process.

How important is this? Much more so than I was ever able to convince my members in either the American Health Care Association (AHCA) or the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA). Try as I would, it was almost impossible to convince members that this was as important a function as any they might engage in on a day-to-day basis. But for nursing homes, advocacy has always been a bread-and-butter issue.

Two-thirds of their residents are (and were) paid for from public funds. Even assisted living is increasingly finding its product determined substantially by the regulatory systems enacted by the legislative and executive branches of state government. I would suggest that the difficulties organizations have had with this are more a matter of priorities than of need. There never seemed to be enough time in the day (or interest on the part of management) to energetically and substantively engage in the political process. After all, they argued, "Isn't that why I pay dues to the association? Why do I have to get involved?" The consequences of that disinterest can have disastrous results for the community's profitability.

AHCA's current leadership has made heightened political influence a priority (see "Building Clout on Capitol Hill," p. 62). President/CEO Hal Daub has proposed a plan to get hundreds more AHCA members in front of U.S. lawmakers, raise millions more dollars for the association's political action committee (PAC), and exert much more influence in the nation's capital. And I can only wish him success where others among us have failed. From the school of hard experience, here are my observations as to the prerequisites for effective lobbying by long-term care operators.

Let's start with the basics. Effective lobbying requires access. If you can't talk to your elected officials, you can't persuade them as to the correctness of your views. But here you're in luck. As former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill once pointed out, "All politics is local." That means a politician's constituents have a leg up when it comes to gaining access. This is not to deny the value of trade associations. Yes, you do pay dues. And working with your association as a "team" can be a most effective lobbying tactic. But ultimately it is the constituent, with his or her vote and financial resources, who will spell the difference between success and failure.

Lobbying is no more and no less than communicating. Effective lobbying, therefore, is no more and no less than communicating effectively. So keep it simple. It's usually a mistake to raise more than one or two issues in a given session with an elected official. And certainly don't leave the session with more questions remaining on the table than were answered. Make sure the official knows who you are and why you're there. What is the issue, and where in your operations will its impact be felt (e.g., staffing, quality of care, your contribution to the local economy, etc.)? Make sure your audience knows when the particular issue will surface. And finally, learn how to do all this in less than 15 minutes. Take more time than that and you've likely lost both his/her interest and the battle.

Avoid creating political problems for your legislator. In other words, work toward consensus solutions to any issue. Try not to make him/her choose between competing constituencies.

Make sure you are personally involved in the discussions. Letters are no substitute for face-to-face conversation. And don't ignore legislative staff. Often it is their advice to "the boss" that will carry the day.

While a constituent can usually gain access to a politician, why would any elected official be that concerned with the views of just one voter? Quite frankly, he probably isn't. That's why grassroots organizing is so important. And as it turns out, you're halfway there. Usually, the most difficult and time-consuming task for the successful lobbyist is building the organization. Fortunately, you already have it in your facility, its staff, and your residents and their families. And if you can expand your scope by involving vendors, local consumer groups, and the like, you will be even more effective.

They will likely look to you, the long-term care manager, for leadership, and fulfilling that role will require effort. Activating and motivating this organization are some of your most critical responsibilities. The members need to be educated and their energies channeled into getting things done with your legislators. And that means it's time to make sure that your new cadre of grassroots lobbyists understands the legislative process.