Picture this: You’re navigating a strange landscape, getting to know the local inhabitants, meeting immediate needs while pursuing long-term aims. You must find your way with a mixture of adroit strategy, effective tactics and tact. How to do it?
If the landscape were overseas, many readers of this site – professionals in cross-cultural engagement – could answer that question in their sleep.
And yet, for some, when it comes to making the case for public diplomacy to the U.S. Congress, it’s as if they’re looking at a lunar landscape instead.
I’ve been invited to write up a few best practices for conducting outreach to the Hill, the topic of a talk I gave last week at American University’s School of International Service, where the PDC’s own Dr. Sherry Mueller hosted a program called “Making the Hard Case for Soft Power.” Under her leadership, this now-annual event draws a standing-room-only crowd and has grown to involve nearly 20 cosponsoring organizations that work in, or in support of, PD. Panelists have included luminaries such as NAFSA CEO Esther Brimmer, IIE President Allan Goodman and Congressman Don Beyer, whose remarks at the 2017 event ring all the more true today.
For this year’s program, I was asked to discuss how to maximize impact through messaging and meetings with legislators – and, more likely, their key PD staff. This is familiar ground: I’ve served as a multi-platform journalist in a number of countries, a staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and a senior executive for what’s now known as the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Below are just a few tips. These personal views don’t necessarily represent those of any employer, past or present – so that’s been said – and most will likely strike you as just plain common sense.
- One-on-one versus public events: By all means, gather people for a timely briefing, milestone celebration or other group event. Done right, it can make a splash; but you’ll achieve more in the pull-aside meetings on the margins, and even more if you schedule one-on-ones.
- Persist with the personal touch: We all know how it feels to get too many emails and have to triage our responses from time to time. In Congress, it’s like that ALL the time. Don’t lose hope if you’ve sent a couple “let’s meet” messages without getting so much as a curt “Thanks!” Follow up by phone; leave a voicemail or two if you must. Drop by if it comes to that, and be ready to leave a note. With apologies to Edward R. Murrow, do what it takes to get within “the last three feet.” You’re more persuasive face-to-face.
- Build relationships by being useful: In getting to know key staff, offer resources that help them do their jobs: Send links to recent reports (not large attachments, which will either clog their in-boxes or get your message diverted to spam); introduce them to subject-matter experts who are prepared to offer testimony; flag pertinent news articles they may have missed.
- Know the differences between in-district/state meetings and in-DC: When Congress is in session, the pace in DC can be voracious, eating up the time of staffers, Senators and House members alike, maybe to the detriment of your meeting. Votes are called or VIPs come by, and suddenly your leisurely conversation is cut short. So keep it brisk, be prepared for interruptions, clearly convey your topline message right at the start, and don’t take it personally if you don’t get much further than that.
You’re more likely to enjoy the undivided attention of the Senator or House member back home when Congress is on a break, but the meeting request should be regionally relevant and is best done with a strong tie-in to constituents.
DC-based staff are more in control of their calendars when the boss is out of town – but those are also times when staff themselves may travel for work or pleasure if they can.
No matter where the conversation takes place, focus at least part of your pitch on how the topic relates to that member’s district or state. For instance, if it’s the lasting power of educational exchanges, take a page from the State Department and think both locally and globally; back up your facts with the latest Open Doors report; and find apt anecdotes to bring those facts to life.
- Sharp tools yield the best results: Try to build these three elements into every meeting: a crisp oral summary of what it’s all about (a.k.a. The Elevator Pitch); a one-page rundown of the most salient info (which some people call The Leave Behind); and – this is a term that needs no explanation – The Ask.
For the most part, people go into public service to get things done – yes, even within the confines of the politically polarized cage fight that is Washington these days. So make the case in a nonpartisan but compelling way – for instance, how investing strategically in ties with people overseas today can help reduce our country’s costs in blood and treasure later on – and don’t be shy about asking for specific actions, be it supporting legislation or delivering a speech. Given the crisp pitch, the one-pager and answers to whatever questions they may have, your interlocutors will appreciate that you’ve prepared an Ask, as long as it’s within their ability and interests to consider saying “yes.”
I could go on, and in fact have done so in other settings over the years. I also know from experience that some of this is easier said than done, due to competing priorities within institutions, bureaucratic barriers, volatile budgets and other challenges. But if you can get past those road blocks, navigating Capitol Hill is largely a matter of planning your route with intention, persistence and the kind of cultural competence that is a hallmark of good public diplomacy.
Lynne Weil teaches a year-long capstone course in public diplomacy at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a skills institute on changes and challenges in contemporary PD at AU’s School of International Service. Her credentials include four-plus years in the Executive Branch at the heart of PD outreach and nearly a dozen as a senior staffer on Capitol Hill.