What is a Lobbyist?

A lobbyist is an advocate for a particular side of an issue; someone who articulates and communicates the views of a company or organization to outside stakeholders, such as government agencies, trade associations, and legislative bodies.

The lobbyist’s primary responsibility is to understand the policy initiatives of regional, federal, and international governing agencies in order to come up with strategies that display the interests of the organization they represent. Lobbyists must also convince legislators to vote on public policy in favour of their clients’ interests.

The title of lobbyist is a broad one. It can apply to anyone involved in a political campaign, a corporate merger, or even just a local community movement. Regardless of their location and the cause they are promoting, every lobbyist’s objective is to inspire ideas, influence opinions, and elicit specific action. Lobbying is all about spreading a message to incite change in both social and political landscapes.

Now that we have answered the question, What is a lobbyist?, let’s answer the closely related question, What does a lobbyist have to be? To succeed in this sometimes ruthless field, a lobbyist must be:

A Master Communicator
Every successful lobbyist is a master communicator. The role calls for articulate and confident individuals who are focused on the success of the movement they are championing.

For example, a state legislator may not be an expert on assistance programs for first-time home buyers. The lobbyist’s job is to help them understand the issue by explaining it clearly and passionately, so that they can feel comfortable backing it.

The most successful lobbyists know everything there is to know about the issue they are promoting. They get inside scoops that give them exceptional perspective and allow them to predict outcomes. They leverage their thorough familiarity with and understanding of the inner workings of a company or campaign to reach desired objectives.

Linda Daschle, of LHD & Associates Inc., is a former deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. She founded her firm in 2008, combining her communications and federal agency experience to become Washington’s most prominent lobbyists for the aviation industry.

Invested in a cause
While lawmakers want to see data and statistics before they commit to backing a cause, they are typically first captivated by a story. For this reason, most lobbyists work for causes that are close to their hearts, especially at the local level, with grassroots movements that affect communities or very specific groups. Graphs and charts are valid tools, but legislators are inspired more by seeing how a particular issue affects their constituents.

The term lobbying was derived from the act of standing in the lobbies right outside of voting chambers to influence lawmakers at the last minute. To this day, this bold approach defines the prototypical lobbyist. Regardless of the uncertainty, lobbyists keep their eyes on their target and on steering their audiences to act in a certain way.

What does a Lobbyist do?

A lobbyist speaking to two other people.

The goals and strategies for lobbyists are the same whether they work for large organizations, private individuals, or the general public. Primarily, their objectives are to persuade and to sway politicians to vote for or against legislation, by tailoring appeals to support certain individuals or groups.

Unfortunately, this profession has a less-than-spotless reputation, as some lobbyists have been known to grease a palm or two. However, the majority of lobbyists are honest, and must suffer the public’s mistrust. These honorable lobbyists represent every segment of society, and take refuge in the knowledge that they are working to promote causes they believe in.

Lobbyist Job Duties

  • Fully understand the interests of the client or company, as they pertain to legislation
  • Apply excellent communication skills to support the client’s or company’s position on specific issues
  • Have knowledge of other interest groups that have a similar position to that of the client or company
  • Prepare press releases and informational literature
  • Represent the client or company at news conferences and in other forms of media
  • Respond to regulatory inquiries and testify at public hearings

There are various types of lobbying:

Direct (Inside) Lobbying

  • Meeting with congressmen and providing them with information pertinent to a bill being voted on
  • Imparting information with the help of graphs, charts, polls, and reports that illuminate the matter favorably
  • Meeting with and helping a politician draft legislation that is in their interest
  • Maintaining positive relationships with politicians who can be relied upon to support the interest
  • Raising money from other sources for re-election campaigns

Indirect (Outside) Lobbying

  • Enlisting the help of the community to influence politicians by writing, calling, or demonstrating
  • Spending long hours on the phone and writing letters, trying to encourage the community to get involved
  • Reporting to politicians the concerns and reactions of community members
  • Writing articles for newspapers and magazines and appearing on talk shows to generate interest

Paid versus Free Lobbying

  • Typically, a business or professional organization hires a lobbyist to represent their interests in Washington. However, some lobbyists decide to work pro bono, in support of a special cause or organization such as a non-profit. Choosing to work pro bono demonstrates a refusal to be swayed by money and sometimes helps convince others to support the issue at hand.

Single-issue versus Multi-issue Lobbying

  • This means that one can either lobby for a single issue or cause, or have the cause be broader, encompassing a wider set of issues. Those who work for corporations tend to be single-issue lobbyists; those who work for the interests of unions tend to be multi-issue lobbyists.

Whether direct, indirect, paid, free, single-issue, or multi-issue, a successful lobbying campaign is clearly about much more than knocking on politicians’ doors. To run effective campaigns, lobbyists must:

Set SMART goals
For a lobbying campaign to be successful, the lobbyist must first define what success will look like. This is achieved by ensuring that all goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Timely.

Create the strategy
Goals are achieved through action and action happens with a strategy. Strategy determines which tactics will be the most effective. Because there is no single grassroots campaign template, it is important to develop a team of people who can collaborate openly to develop a dynamic and diverse strategy.

Communicate clearly
To reach the right audience, your message needs to be relevant, simple, and clear. Your communication strategy has to consider who you are trying to reach, what message is important to them, and how they are most likely to receive that message.

Engage media
Engage the media – especially opinion page writers – in your cause. Leverage social media channels like Facebook and Twitter is to increase your credibility and to expand your audience.

Fund raise
No matter how much passion and energy you have; no matter how extensive your volunteer workforce is, successful advocacy requires money. Money for resources like advertising, tables and chairs at events, food for volunteers, etc. need to be laid out in a strategic plan so that the appropriate funds can be raised.

Build coalitions
Advocacy and lobbying for policy changes are all about banding together like-minded people and organizations for a single purpose or cause. In addition, engage independent advocates, such as academics and other experts, who have the knowledge and capacity to put forward your cause.

Organize communities
How you organize should be focused on how to motivate both individuals and groups. This is where lobbyists really start to execute on their strategy, through formal events, directly on social media, by knocking on doors, and through partnering coalitions.

Engage policymakers
Elected officials rely on information from their constituents to make decisions. Organizations who educate and engage policy makers on the views of the voter around specific issues will be viewed as a credible and useful source of information.

Are you suited to be a lobbyist?

Lobbyists have distinct personalities. They tend to be enterprising individuals, which means they’re adventurous, ambitious, assertive, extroverted, energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic. They are dominant, persuasive, and motivational. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if lobbyist is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Lobbyist like?

Lobbyists tend to work long hours, typically between forty and eighty hours per week. When a bill is up for vote they will often work through the night. The positive is that a lot of the gruelling work that has to be done is in networking, meaning that lobbyists won't necessarily be sitting behind a desk for all those hours.

Many agencies, businesses, institutions, and organizations are interested in using the skills and knowledge of lobbyists to promote and represent their cause. Below is an example of the types of employers that will hire a lobbyist:

  • Public and private corporations
  • Public Relations firms
  • Consulting firms
  • Federal, state, provincial, and municipal governments
  • Professional organizations and trade associations
  • Health authorities
  • Educational institutions
  • Financial institutions
  • Political and social organizations
  • Industry organizations
  • Scientific and research organizations

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the American lobbying industry out of control?

‘Things can be slipped into a bill at the last minute… It is very easy to change things here and there if you are persistent. If you make the arguments again and again, there is a tendency to work out a compromise.’ – Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America thinktank

‘The shackles, even while they are on, are more spaghetti than steel.’ – The Center for Responsive Politics, on lobbying restrictions in Washington

These two quotes illustrate the concerns around the lack of control on lobbying in the United States. Is the industry broken and if it is, can it be fixed? The article below, written in February 2017, tackles this question.

Lobbying: The Scourge of Good Government - by Philip Kotler

Lobbying describes the effort of lobbyists to influence decisions made by government officials such as legislators, regulators, or judges. The term came from the fact that ‘influence peddlers’ would appear in the lobby of legislative buildings to buttonhole legislators and influence their voting on behalf of the legislators’ clients. Most of the lobbyists are lawyers and many are ex-Congresspersons.

Lobbying takes place at every level of government, including federal, state, county, municipal, and even local governments. In Washington, DC alone, over 12,000 lobbyists are busy targeting legislators and regulators.

Views about Lobbying

We tend to view lobbying activity as bad in leading elected officials away from voting in the interests of the people in their district and toward voting in favor of the lobbyists’ clients. We tend to see the influence of lobbyists as pernicious and favoring the interests of corporations and wealthy families over the common citizens.

Nevertheless, we must recognize instances of ‘good lobbying’ by groups trying to counter the misstatements and misinformation of other lobbyists, and also to represent advocacy groups such as environmental, educational, and health care groups. For example, the American Medical Association lobbied Congress to pass laws against tobacco advertising or sales to minors, and most people would consider this to be good.

In the ‘bad’ category are seen the lobbyists for major industries, particularly the oil industry, agriculture industry, pharmaceutical industry, and the defense industry. Lobbyists for the oil industry have managed to get government to provide strong subsidies and privileges for that industry. Lobbyists for the agriculture industry basically serve the corporate owners of vast agricultural land rather than the small farmers. Lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry have helped achieve high drug prices in the U.S. by keeping out foreign drugs and delaying generic drugs. And lobbyists for the defense industry keep legislators actively voting for more military goods than even the military generals feel that it needs.

Campaign finance is the real source of corruption of our democratic ideal. Each legislator faces a mounting cost to get elected or re-elected way beyond his/her personal income and the income of friends and acquaintances. Each legislator needs campaign donations beyond what the political party can supply. Lobbyists are able to make campaign donations coming from their client corporations. Lobbyists cannot ask for the legislator’s vote in return for the campaign donation. But clearly legislators will know the size of the donation and will thank the lobbyists for the campaign support. Legislators also know that voting favorably for the interests of certain companies will increase chances to become a lobbyist after the legislator’s career is over. A Congress person who becomes a lobbyist can make several times his former annual salary of $187,000 as a lobbyist.

All said, raising enough campaign finance money is a cancer that gets legislators to focus more on the interests of big corporations and wealthy families than on what best serves the interests of the voters in their district.

We must recognize lobbying as essentially a marketing activity. The client hires a lobbyist with an issue in mind and together identifies the key legislators, their voting tendencies, and their susceptibilities; all in order to develop the right information, communication, and persuasion strategy. Successful lobbying requires deft persuasion skill, and has much in common with such activities as management consulting and public relations. Lobbyists hope to develop a close and trusting relation with various legislators and supply them with helpful information. Lobbyists must not commit the error of feeding dishonest facts to the legislator and thereby embarrassing the legislator, who will never again deal with that lobbyist. Although the facts are usually correct, the lobbyist puts them into a context that favors voting a certain way.

Lobbyists often say that they don’t approach a legislator and offer a political contribution. Most often the legislator phones them and asks for a political contribution, even stating the amount. The total cost of federal campaigns has skyrocketed in recent years, and elected officials must spend countless hours on the phone raising money for their campaigns. The real story here was not one of lobbyists corrupting some otherwise honest policymakers, but one of elected officials hitting up lobbyists through a form of legalized extortion.

Lobbyists are paid a salary and are given a budget to cover expenses and also contributions to legislator campaigns. One of the most damaging indictments of lobbying is found in Lawrence Lessig’s book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ended up declaring that businesses were persons with a right to influence other citizens. The result is that more Americans see special interests funnel huge amounts of business money into influencing Congress and that business interests control the legislatures. Although there is little evidence of overt bribery, a lobbyist statement such as ‘If you aren’t able to vote for X, I’ll have to contribute $1,000,000 to your opponent’ is likely to have a strong effect.

Does the lobbying activity really pay off? Some studies have tried to show that legislators were not influenced by campaign contributions. But Lessig shows that influence can occur in other ways such as delaying certain bills, modifying certain bills. He shows how members adjust their views in advance before asking for contributions, so there is no explicit evidence of a change in a member’s view as a result of asking for contributions and that often contributions are given to avoid a bill being passed or to preserve the status quo.

Other studies say that lobbying has a great impact on Congressional bills and policy making. A 2011 meta-analysis of research findings found a positive correlation between corporate political activity and firm performance. A 2009 study found that lobbying brought a substantial return on investment, as much as 22,000% in some cases.

Proposed Solutions to the Lobbying Problem

Clearly governments must pass laws regulating the influence of lobbyists. Lobbyists’ activities must be reported and transparent and must be free of overt bribery. Lobbying is subject to extensive rules which, if not followed, can lead to penalties including jail. Yet the activity of lobbying is legal and is interpreted by court rulings as free speech and protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Among the solutions proposed are the following:

  • A cooling off period that makes congressional staff and others wishing to enter the lobbying field wait a year or more before they can lobby, and limits campaign contributions
  • Requiring lobbyists to register; requiring them to report contacts and expenditures
  • Reporting which businesses and organizations lobby, how, at whom, and for how much
  • Establishing a ban on personal gifts
  • Requiring political candidates to voluntarily agree to take only small ($100 maximum) contributions
  • Allowing a federal tax payer campaign fund checkoff [on U.S. income tax return forms] for specific Congressional candidates

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How long does it take to become a Lobbyist?

In a way, lobbyists never stop becoming lobbyists. This is because the work demands a never ending dogged commitment to building key relationships and networking.

Lobbying is a profession full of people who have transitioned into the career from a wide variety of other occupations. This is because relevant knowledge and experience are all that is really needed to work as a lobbyist.

Therefore, it is not necessary to follow a specific educational track to become a lobbyist. However, there are certain strategies which will facilitate entry into the field. A Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science is particularly common among lobbyists, but many succeed with a Bachelor's Degree in Law, Public Relations, Communications, Journalism, or Economics. Although rare, some thrive in the field with no degree at all.

Practical experience for the job can be gained via a number of paths. In the U.S., becoming a congressional staffer or a legislative intern – which entails performing research required to draft legislation – is one of the best ways to learn how the legislative process works. Working for or volunteering with a trade organization that influences policy or working on political campaigns can also bring invaluable knowledge and networking opportunities.

Many lobbyists come from careers as politicians, allowing them to capitalize on their years of government experience and on their connections to former colleagues still in office.

Voluntary certification, awarded to individuals who complete the required five core seminars, is offered by The American League of Lobbyists. Lobbyists are required to register with both state and federal governments.

What are Lobbyists like?

Based on our pool of users, lobbyists tend to be predominately enterprising people. This finding is not at all surprising, because at its core, lobbying is persuading. And to be effective, persuasion must be creative, imaginative, resourceful, innovative, and adventurous. It must be enterprising.

Should I become a Lobbyist?

The primary objective of lobbyists is to influence policy. This mandate naturally calls for people who are interested in global and political issues and who are sociable and influential. In view of these requirements, you should ask yourself some pointed questions before considering this career:

  • Am I persuasive and adept at getting my way, even in the face of significant challenges?
  • Am I a skilled negotiator?
  • Am I good at meeting new people, maintaining connections, and growing my network?
  • Am I skilled at working as part of a team and doing favors for people?
  • Am I experienced in explaining complex issues to people in simple, direct terms?
  • Am I able to thoroughly analyze information and use it to develop strategies?
  • Am I comfortable working in fast-paced environments that often demand pivoting to alternate plans and approaches?
  • Am I patient and willing to work long hours?

The successful lobbyist invariably can answer all of these questions with an unqualified yes.

Lobbyists are also known as:
Government Relations Specialist