This week I had the single most irritating meeting since starting. Since being in DC. No, actually, it could be ever. Tho I will have to confer with AED on that.
Anyway, so this guy comes into my office with his client. The meeting started off on the wrong foot because they thought they were meeting with the Congressman. They weren’t. Whatever. So I meet with them, make my apologizes, pull out my pen and notebook, and get ready to work.
This is when everything went wrong.
Lobbyist starts out with chit chat.
Lobbyist: [Your last name]? I know someone named Eva [your last name]. Any relation?
Me (instantly irritated because my name is more common than most people think and because I don’t know many folks from my father’s side of the family. Not for any beef reason, just that they live in Canada): No. Sorry. My name is more common than you’d think.
Lobbyist: Well, I have a cousin with my exact last name.
Okay, you know what. For security sake, I’m not going to do the play-by-play, which was FUCKING INSANE. But I will give you an overview. In about one minute, I learned that this guy was a Republican, worked for a Senator before lobbying, was appointed to two different positions by two different administrations, and was NOT gay but, he wanted me to know, he was not homophobic because he has a distant cousin who who is gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, he told me, just to make sure there was a punchline at the end.
Yeah, while that little Seinfeld joke might work in his more evolved though decidedly homophobic, Republican circles, there is simply no way that was going to work with me. You, sir, are an idiot and your attempt to connect with me through the most stereotypical of comments (count them with me, please – 1) I’m a Republican but not a scary one because Democrats like me, 2) I worked on the Hill so I’m just like you, 3) I’m really smart because two different administrations were going to appoint me to stuff, including a Democratic president, 4) I’m not gay but I have a gay family member, and 5) I think New Yorkers AND Jews are funny) is insulting. He is so lucky I liked the client.
So after that meeting – which really was terrible – and several months of meeting with lobbyists and advocates of ranging degrees of competency, I have a few Dos and Don’ts for anyone interested.
First, the Dos:
- Do your homework. One of the most annoying things is when a lobbyist comes into the office to ask your boss to sign onto a bill that he is already on. Look it up! It will take two seconds. Similarly, if you know you are looking for help with something, say a grant, do some legwork ahead of time to see what’s out there. Because the response to “We’d like help getting a grant” will first be “Did you look at grants.gov? After you spend some time researching let’s talk again.”
- Do have an ask or other action item. Related to doing your homework, an advocate should know what it is they want – that is, what it is s/he is asking for BEFORE getting to the office. The biggest waste of my time and yours is for you to come in for a meeting, spend 10 minutes talking about this critically important issue, and you want us to help. I know this because you’ve probably said, “And we’d like the Congressman to help.” Okay, you’ve identified a problem. Now what? “Great,” I say. “How can he be helpful?” If this question is answered with silence, then you’ve wasted a trip to the office. Because it’s best if you tell me instead of making me guess. Because I don’t like guessing games and won’t do it. Instead, I will give you a list of homework items and won’t revisit your concern until I get that material.
- Do note your opposition. If I hear about that your issue, bill, whatever is opposed by other groups from you, I will know that you’re probably someone I can trust.
- Do understand your issue. I’m going to ask you questions. Most likely because I don’t understand the issue that you are coming in to talk to me about. So know what you’re talking about. And if you can’t explain what your issue is and what you want from me or my boss in a few sentences, you need to rethink the issue BEFORE the meeting.
- Do save the outrage. Even if I’m outraged about something, I’d really like us to just focus on the problem and possible avenues for my boss to be helpful instead of doing this EVERYTHING SUCKS! game. The EVERYTHING SUCKS! game is best played after work and with lots of alcohol.
- Do return my call/email. So you come in, we have a good meeting, you’ve given me your ask, and I’ve agreed to do something for you. Great. Now I need follow up information. I call or email you asking for materials, background, etc. I wait. And I wait. And I wait. Wait a minute. We’re you the one who said this was 1) very important, and 2) timely? What does “timely” mean to you? Because disappearing for several weeks does not seem to be “timely” to me.
- Do email me. Please, for the love of G-d, email me. I can keep track of it. I can search it. I can cut and paste it. Email is a dream. Use it!. If you have to call me and leave a voicemail (which I would not – I would just ask the person who answered the phone for the email address), leave me your email address. Chances are low that I’m going to call you back. With an email, however, I’m more inclined to respond and to respond quickly.
Now for the Don’ts:
- Don’t tell me to do your homework for you. Ultimately, you’re the one who wants to get done whatever it is you’re here to talk about. Don’t ask me to do research on available grant programs or funding streams. Again, my answer to this is “Go to grants.gov.” So do us both a favor and do a little bit of work before you ask me to do anything. Because chances are, I won’t.
- Don’t tell me how good my questions are. Yeah, I ask good questions. Got it. You, I’m sorry to report, don’t have good answers. Is this really the impression you want to leave? That I don’t think you’re that smart? Or worse – that you’re a kiss ass? I would advise you against that.
- Don’t kiss my ass. Related to above, don’t kiss my ass. Don’t tell me “The Congressman is very lucky to have you,” because you sound ridiculous. Worse still, you will only piss me off and make me think that you underestimate me and my ability to recognize a bullshitter. Bottom line – Ass-kissers are neither trusted nor respected. Sure, you’re likely to get ahead. But chances are, you won’t be liked.
- Don’t ask me personal questions. Okay, so you’re here to talk about some devastating disease or something similar. Please, do us both a favor and DO NOT ask me if I have, or know someone with, said ailment. Because you will 1) not get an answer, and 2) will be hurried along to get to your point. Quickly. Look, I get that this one might not seem intuitive. It might even seem opposite to what you would think would help you relate to someone. (Person 1: “I have cataracts. Do you have cataracts or know anyone with cataracts?” Person 2: “Why yes, my grandmother has cataracts! I like and trust you more now because you’ve connected with me through my grandmother!”) But, you see, I’ve had 5 to 10 meetings that day alone with groups just like yours who are asking me the same personal questions. I don’t like this generally, and when I put the lawyer face on, you’re going to get this response: “Why don’t you just give me your whole pitch. Assume I don’t know anything about your issue.” And I’m not so sure anyone what’s to hear this.
- Don’t be late. Actually, I don’t really mind if you’re late. But DO NOT get here late and then get annoyed that I’m not ready to see you immediately.
- Don’t give me attitude. I get that sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, you’re coming in to see me because there is something threatening an issue that you care deeply about. This means that emotions are involved and, potentially, running high. But just because my boss didn’t sign onto a letter or bill you support doesn’t mean all that much really. It just means that he didn’t join this time around. It certainly means nothing about whether he’ll support the measure if brought for a vote. So relax and keep your attitude to yourself. Under NO circumstance should you give into the emotion and say something like, “Well, I know the Congressman doesn’t consider health care to be a priority, so can you tell me what his priorities are?” Because the answer you get to this question will be WAY more than you bargained for.
- Don’t wow me with your resume. You worked on the Hill? The Senate, you say? For Chairman so-and-so? Sorry to do this, but I don’t care. All this does is make me think that you’re trying a little to hard to show me – and your client – that you’re one of us (whatever the hell that means). That you “get” the Hill. “Getting it” is very important around here, you see. Well, if I’m supposed to get that you have self-confidence issues, then GOT IT.
- Don’t tell me how busy you are. I swear, if I hear from one more person how busy she or he is, I’m going to lose it. Yeah, people are busy. Get over it. This is not some inside joke or excuse. I’m still going to need you to do the work I asked you to do. Oh, and do us both a favor. When I follow up on something that you haven’t done for 3 WEEKS, please don’t send me a two paragraph response about why you couldn’t do it. See, you could have just used that time to get the project done.
- Don’t harass me. Okay, you have a proposal for a bill. You leave several messages, you fax or email your proposal over, you follow up with several phone calls. We talk – both about the idea generally and to confirm my receipt of the materials. You continue to call. Daily and sometimes more. Now, there’s no deadline. Yes, you have to be persistent if you want to get something from Hill staffers. But for fuck’s sake, harassing me won’t led to positive results. It’s going to make me lose your number.
- Don’t leave me a voicemail. I am not a phone person. If you are not a family member, friend, or someone who is about to leave information that does not require follow up, DO NOT leave me a voicemail. I may listen to it. But I’m pretty sure I’m not calling you back unless and until I absolutely have to. All of this could be avoided if you just left your email address. Please, I beg you. LEAVE YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS! Hell, I’ll take IM, G-Chat, Twitter, Blackberry Messanger, whatever. Just don’t make me have to call you.
- Don’t fax me or ask me to fax you. Yes, I have access to a fax machine. But with only the rarest of exceptions, you can PDF this document to me via email. And I can PDF something back to you via email. To ask me to put something on a fax is absurd and I’m just not going to do it. Seriously, when you tell me to fax you something, I instantly think it’s 1980-something. Unless you’re in your 70’s. I’ll make an exception for someone in their 70’s.
- Don’t stop by. The stop-by is one of the absolute worst things an advocate can do. If meeting with me was important to you, you would have made an appointment. The stop-by just means that the poor 20-something at the front desk is going to have to test his or her abilyt to lie. Because please believe I’m not coming out to meet you. (Of course, this does not apply to friends. Stop by anytime.)
- Don’t name drop. Don’t embarrass both of us by name dropping people who I either don’t know or don’t care about. Which is pretty much everyone, with rare exception. And for the love of G-d, don’t name drop someone I don’t like. And you can’t really know who that is, so just don’t do it at all. Please. I beg you.
- Don’t assume you know how old I am. Because you’re going to be wrong and then we’re both going to have a weird moment, and I’m going to have to watch you as you reassess your strategy with me. Best to not assume.