The media usually portrays lobbyists as people in expensive suits cutting late-night deals with elected officials in dimly lit bars. This makes running a lobby meeting as a student leader seem daunting – both to see yourself in that position negotiating with elected officials, and to counter the influence of those powerful players. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, where face-to-face contact is impossible, the thought of running a lobby day for your student group can seem even more difficult.
Fortunately, the media’s portrayal of a lobbyist, is not an entirely accurate portrayal of how lobbying works, and legislators and their staff often see meetings with their constituents, especially students, as a breath of fresh air. If you’re part of a student government or advocacy group on campus, organizing a lobby day can be a fun and impactful way for your group to elevate student voices and reach your campaign goals.
Scheduling meetings with your senators and representatives is surprisingly easy, and in the world of the pandemic, going to a lobby meeting can be as straightforward as Zooming into your classes — just with a little bit more preparation. Remember, elected officials are in office to represent your will as constituents. A lobby meeting is simply a time for them to hear what matters to you.
Here is a step-by-step guide of how you can have a successful lobby day for your student group. And, check out this memo for a more comprehensive checklist of everything you need to do to make sure your day runs smoothly.
Step 1: Pick Your Campaign
This is the most important part of setting up your lobby day, but figuring it out can be pretty simple. Ask yourself questions like what have you been working on recently? What do students on your campus care about? And how can Congress or your state legislature make a difference? After picking your campaign, find a few great statistics or see if any potential lobby day participants have a compelling personal story that illustrates the problem you are trying to solve, and a policy that would solve the problem.
An example of a problem is that students are taking out more debt than ever before because states and the federal government do not invest enough in higher education; the policy handle to go with it could be doubling the Pell Grant maximum award so that students do not need to take out as much debt. You should write up key talking points, and get them edited and approved by your organization’s leaders as you start scheduling meetings. Make sure that your talking points have a clear and concise ask, whether it be cosponsoring a bill, introducing a bill, or simply voting a certain way.
Step 2: Settle on a Date
When picking a date for your lobby day, consider the schedules of both the students who are lobbying, and the representatives and staff you want to meet with. If you are right in the middle of exam season, it’s probably not the best time for a lobby day. You need to make sure that your students will have adequate time to prepare for lobby meetings so you can put your best foot forward.
Also consider what time works for the legislators and their staff. Congress is only in session for about half the year, so you should try to make sure that the people you’re lobbying will actually be available. You should also consider what else is going on in the legislature. Try to find a time when the staff for your issue area won’t be too distracted with other work to take your meeting. For guidance, look at the calendar for Congress or your state’s legislature. If the calendar is full of committee hearings on similar issues to the one that you want to lobby on, you probably will want to pick another day.
Step 3: Schedule Meetings
Scheduling meetings can be as simple as sending an email to a staffer or filling out a meeting request form on a representative’s website. Before you start filling out forms and sending emails though, you should decide which elected representatives should be your priority to meet with. You should prioritize meetings with both your state’s senators, the representative for your campus, and the home representatives of your attendees. And then, from that list, flag which members serve on the committees that have jurisdiction over the issues or funding that you are lobbying on. Additionally, you should consider meeting with any federal agencies that offer funding or enforce regulations on these issues.
Three weeks out from the meeting, you should send an initial email to the staffer of your issue area or the office’s front desk, making sure to include a list of attendees, a brief agenda, and a link to more information about your group. Also, be clear about your availability and offer a couple times that might work for your existing schedule. One week later, send a follow-up email and call the front desk. A week after that, you should call one more time. If you follow those steps, you will likely get a good number of meetings for your team. The maximum number of meetings you should schedule in a day is about five. After you have the meeting scheduled, send the person you are meeting with a video conference link at least a few days in advance.
Step 4: Prepare for meetings
Your team can have up to six students, and each should have a different speaking role that covers a part of the agenda. As a team, you should practice at least two to three times to make sure that everyone has their roles down. Roles that can be useful for your meetings are: a team lead to introduce the team and ask follow up questions, someone to tell a personal story of how the problem affects them or their family, someone who talks about the problem with facts and statistics, someone to talk about the solution, someone to make the policy ask, and lastly one team member should make a relationship-building ask like asking the legislator to attend an event on your campus.
In your first prep meeting, assign all roles and run through the agenda a few times. You can also use this time to review background research on the elected officials you are meeting with, and determine your asks and goals for the meetings. In the second meeting, role play and prepare for questions that you think you may get in response. And practice making a confidently worded ask (e.g. “Can you commit your support to the bill?”) and getting a commitment from the member or staff. Think of the different ways to ask the same thing.
Step 5: Hold the meetings
Huddle with your team in the morning to have one final run through and get excited for the day! When you are in the meetings, it is important to remember that no one expects you to be issue experts and to know all the stats and latest research on an issue. You’re a student, not a think tank analyst. Speak truthfully from your experiences (or those of a friend),and offer to get back to them if they ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. Just going to these meetings and showing legislators that students and their constituents care about these issues is enough to make a big impact.
Wrap up the meeting with a restatement of their response to your ask, and make a plan for how you will follow up after the meeting. You can also use your meetings to make an impact on your campus. Be sure to be active on social media all day (don’t be shy about asking for a photo!), and send a press release to your campus newspaper along with screengrabs or photos of your lobbying team in action.
Step 6: Follow up
You did it! You held a successful lobby day for your student group. But what now? That first meeting was just the beginning. Make sure to send a thank you email with any follow up information that you promised, and thank the legislator on Twitter. You should also follow up with them with information about what your group is doing on your campus, and opportunities for you to partner with them in the future such as speaking on panels or holding a town hall on campus. This lobby day could be the beginning of a strong relationship between your student body and this elected official.
Remember that lobbying is just the tip of the iceberg, and it is unlikely that you’ll meet your campaign goals with lobbying alone. Good times to lobby are at the beginning of your campaign to get intel about whom you can work with and whose mind you need to change, or at the end of your campaign to deliver the evidence that decision makers need to move from undecided. But remember, most of your power as students most likely comes from your grassroots base, the student body, so you should spend most of your time running events like petition gathering, calling legislators, and social media storms to get the word out.