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Putting the Why into a Story

Putting the Why into a Story

A Personal Dimension to State and Local Relations

John Davies speaks
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Succeeding at state- and local-level government relations goals often comes down to interpersonal relationships.

On the first day of the Council’s State and Local Government Relations seminar Sept. 19 in Washington, that was the prevailing message of presenters ranging from David Thornburgh, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, to Dawn Arteaga, digital strategist at Porter Novelli.

Thornburgh, the son of former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, advised attendees to look upon states as “laboratories of democracy” and upon public officials as customers rather than public servants.

He also said that in an era in which we’re losing institutional memory largely as a result of a “throw the bums out” mentality, it’s more important than ever to “invest in the next generation of public leaders.” He pointed to Penn’s Public Policy Challenge as one way of meeting this goal. Focused on “turning policy ideas into action,” as Penn’s website puts it, the competition has students work to address various issues in the city of Philadelphia.

Speaking on information overload and ensuring that one’s voice is heard in the often noisy public arena, Rusty Paul, director of government affairs and public policy at Arnall Golden Gregory, recommended viewing opponents as merely “temporary adversaries,” given the election cycle’s brevity. He also recommended the direct approach in researching bills and their potential impact, advising public affairs practitioners to call a bill’s author personally to ask what problems he or she was trying to solve in introducing the legislation.

Paul also noted that, in trying to decide which bills are most urgent and which can be relegated to the back burner, contract lobbyists, state associations, the state Chamber of Commerce and local industry leaders can be helpful allies.

Of course, having a clear, compelling narrative helps, too. John Davies, founder and CEO of Davies Public Affairs, underscored the value of this: “It’s got to become a story to break through the clutter,” he told the audience. But behind that story must also be a compelling reason, or “why,” he said, pointing out that great leaders from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs have all had an effective “why” behind their message.

“You can’t just pass along news,” said Council board member and seminar speaker Michael DiBiase, senior vice president of government relations for Fidelity Investments. “You need to add value.”

Davies also stressed the importance of cultivating relationships with supporters and maintaining those ties over the years. Social networks can prove particularly helpful in this regard. Porter Novelli’s Arteaga, speaking on social media and reputation management, noted that LinkedIn and Twitter are great tools for identifying the people you need to follow as well as those you want to reach.

But Union Pacific’s senior manager for media technology, Tim McMahan, speaking alongside Arteaga, emphasized that in order to use social media effectively, you have to really “throw yourself into it” and be free and open in your communications there.

And not simply asking lawmakers for something but also sharing personal stories about your organization’s efforts to give back to the community – including corporate social responsibility programs – can be key to forging strong relationships. For Lorelei Mottese, director of government relations for Wakefern Food Corp., talking about ShopRite’s recycling efforts helped break the ice in advocating against a bottle deposit bill.

“This went a long way with legislators,” said Mottese, because they saw “we weren’t just thinking about us.”