Tips for Working with Local Lawmakers

August 2012

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

What is the single biggest mistake animal advocates can make, according to FixAustin.org's Ryan Clinton? "For advocates to go to their city hall, make a presentation, be roundly ignored, and conclude from that experience that a problem cannot be fixed."

Instead, he suggests following these tips, which are what worked to get Austin, TX, lawmakers to set an aggressive no-kill goal for their city, which has been saving more than 90% of its animals for more than a year now.

Take a big-picture view. "Reform requires a long-term, pragmatic, somewhat difficult but very possible effort to effect real change in your community. Thinking you can just go to one meeting with signs and buttons and have the government change the way it works is not realistic."

Be professional. "Behave like the groups and individuals who really do effect change in your community. They have a much longer-term horizon, a bigger perspective on creating change. It means building real organizations with real boards, with real websites, real communication tools, professional press releases, all the things that the groups and individuals who effectively influence government do.

"You know who those people are: lobbyists, lawyers, developers. They're professional; they're friends with council members. Everyone knows who the people are who create change, and what they act and look like, but for some reason they (animal activists) think they can do it completely differently. It's irrational and it doesn't work."

Dress to impress. "Dress like a lobbyist. Look, act, and sound like the people who you already know are influencing government. You wouldn't clean a dirty litter box in a business suit, so don't try to clean up city hall in sweat pants."

The value of relationships and how to build them. "Above all else, cultivate real relationships with the people who make decisions and the people who can affect those relationships.

"No one is going to believe you if they don't know who you are. I've often said that if your council member doesn't stop to say hello to you in the supermarket, you can't win.

"How do you get them to know you? Every elected official has an office and website and a phone number. You need to reach out and make contact. Once you're ready to communicate what you want to say in a professional way, call their office and ask for a meeting to discuss your issue.

"Your first meeting will probably be with a staffer, not the elected official. Their job is to screen out the crazies. Go meet with them. Talk with them. At the end of that meeting, ask what the next step is. Eventually, if you work hard and long enough and you're prepared and have created a real organization, and behave professionally, you'll meet with the council member."

What to bring to the meeting. "You need to develop supporting materials: I like to bring bound copies of materials that look professional, with a logo on the front and an index. I want to leave them with more than I can communicate in the 20 minutes or so you usually get to meet with a council member or their aide.

"After you're gone, they can read through what you left, get more information, and double-check you. It also sends a message that you're serious and you're prepared. They've done studies that show if someone gives a presentation without a PowerPoint or materials, and someone else gives the same presentation with them, the audience concludes the person with the PowerPoint and materials is more expert.

"It's because we're embedded with this bias toward stuff. We want to see some proof you know what you're talking about. It's a way to communicate to your audience that you're legit, for real."

 

About Ryan Clinton:
Ryan ClintonRyan is a Texas appellate attorney at the law firm Hankinson LLP. A former Assistant Solicitor General for the State of Texas, Ryan has handled some of the most high-profile appellate litigation in Texas - including state and federal litigation related to the tragic collapse of the Texas A&M Aggie Bonfire. Outside of work, Ryan is a committed community advocate and a sucker for homeless dogs and cats.

Ryan lives and works in Austin, TX, where he founded FixAustin.org, an animal-advocacy organization aiming to keep Austin a no-kill community. Ryan has seven times been named one of the best attorneys in Texas under the age of 40 in Texas Monthly magazine, has successfully argued in the Texas Supreme Court four times, and was named a finalist for the young professional of the year award by Austin Under 40.

In 2009, Ryan was a recipient of the Henry Bergh Leadership Award given by the Oakland, California-based No Kill Advocacy Center for his advocacy on behalf of companion animals. His advocacy work has been featured by the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Baton Rouge AdvocateAmerican Dog Magazine, and Best Friends.org, and his guest columns have appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Contra Costa Times, and the Durham Herald-Sun.

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