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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Steps for Representing Business Before Government

CAPITOL OFFENSES Brendan Huffman Last month, this column addressed the question of why the San Fernando Valley has so many business groups but so few that actually represent our businesses before governmental agencies. As an example, I pointed out that only one local business group was proactively speaking out on the Valley’s most pressing issue, which is how the newly created citizens redistricting commission will redraw our legislators’ boundaries. This alone could determine the level of our clout in both the state capital and Congress. I observed that nearly every other business group in the Valley was oblivious to redistricting and most other legislative issues, too, at least judging from content on their websites. The column struck a nerve with many people, including the public affairs staff of corporate entities who informed me that they are not renewing their memberships in business groups unless the groups employ government affairs specialists and endorse candidates. Other responses were more defensive from business groups, insisting they do advocacy and had the positions to prove it (although only a handful of those positions were taken this year). Advocacy is directly communicating positions to the officeholders who will be determining the outcome of pending legislation. Supporting components of advocacy include highlighting recent positions on your website and Facebook pages. So are letters to the editor, being quoted in the newspaper, and listing newly adopted positions in your newsletters. In short, communicating your positions is helpful, but it is not a substitute for presenting your positions directly with your lawmakers either in his/her office or on the phone. Unfortunately, very few of the Valley’s business groups even include their positions on their websites, social media and newsletters. Usually, there is a listing for when their government affairs committees meet, but little else on the websites. And while some business groups don’t even have committees to address legislation, most of them have committees to plan the mixers, inaugural dinners, golf tournaments and other functions that have nothing to do with representing business before government. Speaking with members of these groups, who are interested in getting more involved with advocacy, it seems to me that most of us are concerned about our business climate but often lack the experience to effectively address legislative issues. So, here are some tips for those business groups that are going to step-up soon and position themselves to be leaders and represent Valley business before government: First, establish a committee to address legislative issues in a timely manner with a talented chair who is informed, influential, and knows how to build consensus. Second, develop a public policy platform that highlights your group’s priority issues to provide your committee members with guidance to recommend positions to the board of directors. Third, brush up on current events taking place at city hall or Sacramento, and educate your members about legislative developments through your communications. Just because your organization doesn’t have a position on an issue shouldn’t mean that you cannot make them aware. Fourth, be selective. Unless you have vast resources, you cannot be everything to everybody. At least initially, try to focus on low hanging fruit or the most critical issues that impact a majority of your members, such as gross receipts taxes and meal-rest period rules — these affect nearly every business in the Valley. Finally, be timely. If the City Council is going to vote on an item tomorrow, it’s probably more time efficient to look ahead and position your organization to be ready to pounce when the next issue arises. Even though you may have a government affairs committee, do you have the right person leading it? Sadly, I have encountered too many well-intentioned committee chairs who were not cut out for that kind of leadership role. The best committee chairs are those who understand public policy and know the dynamics of our political system, in terms of personalities involved and how to pick battles. On the other hand, the least effective committee chairs I’ve encountered tend to be ideologically inflexible, petty, uninformed about key issues or unable to build consensus among their peers. It is important for committee chairs to be dedicated not just to your organization, but also dedicated to the cause. You should communicate with them regularly, particularly in advance of committee meetings so that both of you are on the same page. After your committees have suggested positions for your board to adopt, don’t assume that it’s going to work out that way. Usually it does, but your committees have the advantage of spending more time to talk through complicated issues. Often, the committee members who influenced the outcome of the committee’s vote are not at the board meetings to articulate their analysis of issues. Therefore, it is wise to brief board members about committee meetings with some background about the issue and how the committee arrived at its recommendation. Someone should be at the board meeting to explain it again if necessary, which is why it’s important for committee chairs to also serve on the board. Next, be sure to update your website soon after each meeting and highlight board actions on Facebook and through other communication tools. Better yet, blast a press release to every news outlet in your area. Also consider submitting op-eds to your local newspaper or writing a letter to the editor. Most of the people who need to know about your organization’s positions aren’t members so they are probably going to learn about it by reading articles in the papers or hearing about it on the radio. Most importantly, be sure to submit timely, thoughtful letters to your legislators with your positions, and be sure to get your positions in to the public record. If more of the Valley’s business groups would take some steps towards representing their members before government, our collective advocacy would be far more effective — eventually resulting in a better business climate. Brendan Huffman is the owner of Huffman Public Affairs, a San Fernando Valley based firm specializing in association management and strategic communications. Catch Brendan every Thursday at 11 a.m. for “Off The Presses” on LATalkRadio.com for in-depth conversations with officeholders, journalists and other top opinion leaders.

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