Editorial: Meeting the Legislators Observations from Capitol Hill

By Len Monheit
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This past week was the first time I had the chance to participate in industry's Lobby Day on Capitol Hill, and I'd like to share some of my observations and reflections. Keep in mind though, that I attached myself to only two of several groups participating in pre-arranged meetings in both Senate and House offices. Other experiences were no doubt different, and without attending each and every meeting, (or at least collecting data and observations from each and every meeting- now there’s an idea) a complete picture of the event and more importantly, its immediate effect, cannot be drawn.

First of all, the lobbying introduction and preparation was extremely well done. I, like many others, came to Washington not knowing exactly what to expect and do. The 140 or so industry stakeholders were briefed on what information they had available, how to use it, and informed that in most cases, they'd be meeting with Legislative Assistants, typically younger, new to the job, unfamiliar with the industry, and in the highest turnover roles on Capitol Hill. Attendees were provided ‘leave-behinds’ and urged to close the sale, specifically asking for a commitment, in this case, support or co-sponsorship of SB 1538 and active opposition to SB 722. And with that as background, we began our meetings.

Reception was extremely encouraging. So too, was the reaction when attendees made their presentations, even in cases when we encountered support or endorsement for SB 722. Our impact was enhanced when staffers were informed that the presenters were constituents and/or employed a number of people in the state or district. The best reaction we got came when presenters interacted with staffers with sound knowledge of the issues and legislation and supported that with a hard hitting personal impact.

When the group asked for advice on follow up strategy, we were told to keep the information, faxes, e-mails and phone calls coming to Washington on an ongoing basis, to follow up in state offices, and to get someone to explain what DSHEA was all about.

During the discussions and reflecting afterward, several things became clearer:

Mainstream media is educating Washington

-issues such as steroids (and pre-cursors) and ephedra are top of mind for legislators side-tracking productive discussions. They must be managed or dealt with in some manner before productive discussions to deal even with the present crisis can occur effectively. (One senator we met with said that he liked what he was hearing about 1538, but felt he had to express concern (in the same breath) that the 'steroid issue' was a major industry problem.)

It’s all in the follow up

If you consider 140 individuals with an average of four meetings, you reach a potential of 560 direct follow ups from this event. There are two direct avenues of follow up – in Washington, and in state offices, giving a number of 1120 as a number of immediate interactions. This ‘direct’ follow up is the responsibility of the attendees, if they hope to capitalize on the momentum generated from Lobby day itelf. My fear (possibly shared by event organizers) is that little of this follow up will actually occur.

Direct follow up is only one avenue

Each person who attended can speak with clients and colleagues to get the flow of information started and should do so quickly. Several organizations (GNC and Vitamin Shoppe to name a few) have begun mobilizing and informing their customers of the crisis and the impact they can have by communicating with legislators. Trade associations and other groups will continue their programs to get more response generated, especially during the upcoming recess period, but this must be supported by the attendees as ambassadors. (One Senator's staffer noted the fact that consumer comments that were vague or not dealing with issue specifics were not as valuable as educated, informed, data-driven comments. Data in these cases, ranges from dollars spent to number of stores and employees, to health costs etc.)

It takes more than events

There is a tendency (in this industry and others), to operate on an event basis rather than using ongoing systems and processes. We're very driven by tradeshows, with meetings and business decisions revolving around these events. Similarly, a lobby day once or twice a year is an excellent vehicle to promote awareness, provide an opportunity for massive and direct interaction, but like so many strategic processes, if it is to be effective long-term, it needs to become an ongoing priority supported by behavior and activity by all industry stakeholders. To view the day as a one-time opportunity is fine, but making the event into a process is critical if the industry is going to make strides in reaching and educating legislators on an ongoing basis. Despite day to day operational issues, this is something that needs to be focused on, not only in the US, but elsewhere in the world as well.

180 attendees is both good and bad

First the good news - The 140 or so people in attendance is much higher than a typical Lobby Day and those that took the time are to be commended for their commitment to the industry. The fact that the number increased so dramatically is another sign, positive true, but also indicative of the seriousness of the situation.

And now the bad - I can't help but ask the question, "why were only 140 people there?" Conservatively, there are thousands of companies and organizations with a vested interest and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands if not millions are potentially impacted. One school of thought would suggest that key players like GNC, Herbalife, Vitamin Shoppe and others can speak for the industry and will do so, and in fact, did so for themselves, the industry and their clients. Many would say that the impact of small and mid-size companies is as significant, and here, numbers are very important. What impact would have been made if all states could have been represented? In our group, we covered much of the industry value chain, other groups perhaps did not. Imagine 40 (representing many hundreds of thousands of jobs) instead of 17 speaking with Senator Schumer’s HLA to try to convince him to withdraw his co-sponsorship for SB 722.

Having the right to do business in no way guarantees one knows how to do business

-Many in the industry over the past ten years have looked upon DSHEA as a piece of legislation that provides them the right to do business. Unfortunately, learning ‘how to do business’ has been perceived as an unimportant skill. A right without a system to responsibly utilize that right often leads to catastrophe. It has been stated (in fact this very week in Washington) that, 'For every right, there is a corresponding duty'.Our industry duty is to understand how to do business in a mature, strategic planned manner, as an industry, explaining our industry and working with both regulators and legislators as part of this process While trade associations contribute to these efforts, organizations and all industry stakeholders share this duty.

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