TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social media company powered by viral dances and lip syncs, had virtually no presence in Washington, D.C. last year. But as it navigates a growing threat from the Trump administration to ban the app over privacy and other security concerns, the company is reported to have spent $300,000 on lobbying in the first three months of 2020. Moreover, TikTok now boasts a team of more than 35 lobbyists who are engaging with U.S. policymakers on both sides of the aisle in the hopes of retaining status in its biggest market.
While it may seem that only high-profile startups need to engage with the government, as a former lobbyist I know that a single change in policy can transform the trajectory of an organization or even the industry as a whole. As we work to economically recover and safely reopen during this pandemic, your local and national representatives are swiftly making policies you need to know about — from loan programs to remote work to liability. As a leader, it is your responsibility to have your pulse on how potential laws will impact your business.
For those that may not have the capacity or resources to send lobbyists to DC like TikTok, building a strategy that is focused on local government relations is critical. No matter the size or budget, companies that are engaged can play a critical role in setting or resetting a public policy agenda. If your company does not already have a public policy engagement strategy, here are five steps to help you get started:
- Consult your team. I have seen over the last couple of years that pretty much all “business speech” — including marketing and policy stances — can quickly become political. Before you begin building a public policy engagement strategy, it’s important to connect with your key internal stakeholders, which may include your cofounders, staff, and/or investors. You don’t want to blindside them with your participation, and there’s a chance they may have experience and relationships you can reference.
- Familiarize yourself with the key stakeholders for your industry. Start to research the influencers that impact industry policy, at local, state, and federal levels. This group is an ecosystem that includes elected officials, leading companies in your industry, relevant advocacy groups, and trade associations. Take note of the recurring names and upcoming meetings or events that your company can attend.
- Build your network and social capital. Once you have a good grasp of the key influencers and relevant networks, it is important that these people know you and your business. A great way to build your network is to join an association’s public affairs committee. For example, if you are in medical technology in Minnesota, you could look into joining Medical Alley; if you’re in professional services in the Bay Area, look into your local chamber of commerce like the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. No matter the field, associations allow you to work in collaboration with other companies to shape your industry agenda and react to business policy.
- Engage your elected officials directly. Your elected representatives at both the local and national levels need to hear from you in order to advocate for your needs. An easy way to engage these officials is by attending their events, which typically include time for questions from constituents like you. Beyond events, it is also worth reaching out to representatives directly over email or phone to request a personal meeting in their office or inviting them to speak with your company. Personal time with elected officials provides the opportunity to build rapport and to position yourself as the one they call to unpack issues and align on competing pressures.
- Track policy that matters to your company and your industry. It is not enough to know the people that influence public policy, your strategy should also be designed to know what they’re working on, which includes tracking important policy. The goal is to get yourself into the business of policymakers and increase your awareness of the policies driving your industry’s future.
As business leaders, it is easy to bury our heads in our balance sheets and focus on growing our bottom line. But with government officials establishing the specific rules under which all businesses operate, it is important that your team understands and engages in the policies that affect your industry — this is even more important as the country navigates the ever-changing nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic. No matter how you choose to execute your strategy, you should have a plan that empowers you to manage local relationships and keep track of the various policies that matter most.
Shawntera Hardy is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Civic Eagle.