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Lobbying 101: Getting Your Message Across to Congress

Fall 2004

When President Ulysses S. Grant used to leave Capitol Hill to frequent the nearby Willard Hotel bar for a daily cocktail, hordes of favor-seeking men would gather in the hotel lobby, waiting for him to leave so that they might bend his ear. The story goes that Grant termed these people "lobbyists," a term we still use today to describe people who petition Congress and the administration for legislative and policy change.

The term "lobbyist" is a bit pejorative these days, much like "special interest groups." However, a special interest is really a cause (whether good or bad), and lobbyists are those who advocate for a cause. Any time you speak with your government officials, federal, state or local, you are a lobbyist.

By being a lobbyist, you are really being a teacher. Advocacy is a civic duty, much like voting. Policy makers need your expertise. Lobbying advances your cause and builds public trust. It is through advocacy and lobbying that we find real solutions to our problems. Here are some tips that HIV health care providers and advocates will find helpful in getting involved in lobbying.

Taking Action

Advocacy and lobbying are really about sharing your values and your ideas. It means standing up and voicing what you believe in order to change public perception, to change public policy. It's critically important and ultimately, it's all in your hands.


Getting Ready

Meeting with public officials is similar to delivering a presentation. You want to sound natural and real, but as always, it is best to prepare. Prioritizing your issues is smart as well. First, identify the issues that most affect you and your patients. Then begin to screen out unrelated or marginal issues.

Second, and perhaps more important, identify your top three or four messages. Meeting times will be limited, and messaging is very important. If an hour after your meeting, they can't remember your most vivid points, then your time has been wasted.

Learning the Process

Congress is much like medicine -- there's a lot hiding behind the terms, the language and the system. There is nothing inherently intimidating about meeting with your legislators or their staff. It's a conversation. But recognizing to whom you need to speak may at first be a barrier. Visit and to find out who your legislators are and how they can be reached.

Anyone who is elected to office (or in the case of the administration, confirmed by the Senate) is addressed in writing as The Honorable. Other than that, the process for writing a letter is similar to writing any other letter. The more effort you put into your initial contact, the more likely you will receive a quick and thoughtful response. Letters get quicker attention than e-mails. And handwritten letters will probably be read by legislators themselves.

When making phone calls or writing letters, be factual and be brief. Chances are good that you will meet with a legislative aide in addition to or in place of the legislator. These aides are trusted by the legislator to help guide their thoughts on policy. Do not underestimate the power of an aide.

During the Meeting

Always begin with a thank you. Thank them for their time, and thank them for any support they may have offered in the past, be it through their voting record, their comments or their presence at events. Legislators work hard, as do you, and recognizing their past successes will smooth the conversation that will follow.

At the same time, accept people for who they are -- always be cordial and welcoming. Even allies sometimes disagree. Personalizing disagreements or burning bridges never works in your favor in the long run. And there almost always is a "long run." Changing policy is neither quick nor easy. Recognize that it's usually a long struggle to achieve change.

Being Honest and Being Personal

By describing how the Ryan White CARE Act system or the CDC's prevention guidelines affect you and your patients, the messaging becomes more real and your credibility as an authority skyrockets. Being honest with them about what's at stake will be more effective than platitudes and catchphrases.

It's good to speak in personal, real terms. At the same time, if in your meetings you receive a rebuttal to your points, refute more with logic and less with emotion. Finally, ask for action. Specifically, say what it is that you would like them to do!

Following Up

Your legislators need you as much as you need them. Treat the relationship as a courtship and ask for a time to speak again (like a date). Follow up and develop that relationship.

The Basics

  • Take action. Lobbying is critically important and ultimately is all in your hands.

  • Be ready. It is best to prepare. Identify your top three or four messages.

  • Learn the process. Recognize to whom you need to speak. Put effort into your initial contact. Do not underestimate the power of an aide.

  • Be welcoming. During the meeting, begin with a thank you. Always be cordial.

  • Be honest and personal. Describe how legislation and policy affect you and your patients. Speak in personal, real terms, and refute with logic, not emotion. Say what you want them to do.

  • Ask for a time to speak again. Follow up and develop the relationship.

Advocacy, like any civic duty, needs the expertise of all citizens. As an HIV medical care provider, you present a unique perspective on what public policy means to care givers and patients alike. To get involved with AAHIVM lobbying efforts or to get further tips or training in principles of advocacy and lobbying, contact Greg Smiley at

Back to The Nexus Fall 2004 contents page.

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This article was provided by American Academy of HIV Medicine. It is a part of the publication The Nexus. Visit AAHIVM's website to find out more about their activities and publications.