Getting involved in the political process and advocating for your company can help lawmakers and regulators understand your business concerns
If the divisive nature of politics has you feeling frustrated and you’ve vowed to stop paying attention to all of it, you may be in good company.
But the fact remains that in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures across the country, bills are introduced every year that can affect your business. By getting involved in the political process and advocating for your company, you can help shape whether those impacts are for better or worse.
“Apathy isn’t an option for forward-thinking chief executive officers. While the business mantra is ‘The customer is always right,’ the addendum today is ‘The government is always right there.’ As such, it is second only to your consumer base in its ability to affect the economic value of your business,” writes John Thibault, founder of a cloud-based lobbying platform called iLobby, in a blog on the company’s website. “… If you’re not working to shape the landscape for your organization to do business, be assured the government will do it for you. Government regulations have a huge impact on your bottom line.”
If you are a member of the International Sleep Products Association, you already have someone working on your behalf, advocating in the best interests of mattress manufacturers and suppliers. (See story on opposite page.) But ISPA relies on members to help shape the association’s policy positions and encourages mattress companies to get involved in politics at all levels to advocate for issues that are important to them.
To help members stay informed and engaged, ISPA’s government affairs team sends out regular updates on proposed legislation and regulatory changes in the ISPA Insider e-newsletter and, when necessary, in special alerts. Twice a year, in July and December, ISPA publishes comprehensive updates about each bill the association is tracking at the state and federal level.
In addition, the Legislative Action Center on ISPA’s website, SleepProducts.org, makes it easy for members to find contact information for their representatives, as well as information about upcoming elections in each state.
The first step in advocacy is to develop relationships with the elected officials who write and, ultimately, vote on legislation. Lawmakers generally want to hear from their constituents to learn more about their concerns and to better understand how specific legislation might affect them. After all, elected officials are in office because of constituents like you.
Advocacy experts recommend you start by gathering contact information for all your representatives, from your city council member and mayor to your state legislators and governor to your representatives in Congress. You’re more likely to reach out if you already have everyone’s phone numbers and email addresses in your contacts.
When an issue arises that is of concern to you, you’ll first want to contact those elected officials who represent you directly, but you also may need to contact the chairs of committees that will hold hearings and vote on bills that could impact your business, experts say. Your city and state governments’ websites should list committees, outline their responsibilities, and provide contact information for committee chairs and members. Bookmark those pages so they are handy.
You have some options for how you contact elected officials or regulators, including letters, emails and phone calls. When
it comes to letters and emails, a personalized note written with specifics about your company and concerns is most effective: Avoid form letters. Include contact information not only to get a response, but to identify yourself as a constituent, advises the American Society of Civil Engineers in a how-to manual for advocacy and government relations. If you’re addressing a specific bill, include the bill number. Finally, “ask for support or action. … People often forget to ask the member to do something or fail to describe what action should be taken (e.g., vote for/against a bill),” according to the ASCE guide. “Remember: If you don’t ask for anything, then you won’t get anything.”
Before making a phone call, jot down your thoughts and limit your spiel to a minute or two, realizing you’ll probably be speaking with a busy staffer. And again, include a specific request for action — for a return phone call, for a vote/for against a bill, to set up a meeting, etc.
If you’re setting up a face-to-face meeting with elected officials, be clear about what you want to discuss and arrive with concise talking points memorized, as well as supporting materials in hand that you can leave with representatives and their staffs.
You won’t have a lot of time, maybe 15-20 minutes, so hone your message. “Someone in Hollywood said, ‘If you can’t fit your idea on the back of a business card, you don’t have a clear idea.’ That advice stuck with me, and it has been a filter I use with advocacy pitches. Plans are important, and execution is paramount,” says Tom Sadler, deputy director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Arlington, Virginia, who answered a 2019 survey by Fiscal Note, a service that ISPA and other organizations use to track legislation.
After meetings, follow up by thanking the elected officials in a letter or email and offer to answer any additional questions they might have about your business or specific issues you discussed. Don’t forget to thank the staff members you met or who assisted in setting up the meeting. They act not only as gatekeepers but help in drafting legislation, so it’s beneficial to be on good terms with them, experts say.
Regardless of whether it’s an email, phone call or face-to-face meeting, Thibault says one of the biggest mistakes you can make in talking to elected officials is “failing to craft a compelling message that gets your points across.”
As you build relationships, keep a record of your contact with each elected official, noting details such as when you first contacted a representative about a particular issue and the response you got. Set reminders for when to follow up.
Other ways to develop and foster relationships:
• Follow the social media feeds of lawmakers to keep up with their activities, their policy priorities and any upcoming public appearances they have scheduled. Some regulatory agencies also maintain social feeds. Sign up for legislative alerts or e-newsletters they offer.
• Invite elected officials to tour your plant and meet your employees. If you peg the visit to a major capital investment or expansion of your facility or workforce, you may be able to get media attention, as well. “Legislators love opportunities to get out and meet constituents. They’d love to see the great work you’re doing putting folks to work, and it’s a great way to build a relationship before you have an ask or want them to help you. If you’re interested in doing an event like that, ISPA can help you set that up,” says Marie Clarke, vice president of policy and government affairs for ISPA and vice president of industry and external affairs for the Mattress Recycling Council, the nonprofit organization that manages mattress recycling programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
• Organize a roundtable, including representatives of other companies in your area with similar concerns, and invite elected officials.
• Attend town halls and fundraisers, either to ask specific questions or just to touch base with lawmakers and their staffs.
• “Enlist a retired elected official for your board. He/she will know when the budgets are prepared, when the vote happens, who the influential decision makers are and who the elected officials listen to. Retired politicians often take on a ‘community leader’ role — and have a lot of influence,” says Gail Perry, founder of Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Gail Perry Associates, in the Fiscal Note survey.
• Raise your corporate profile. Volunteer to serve on commissions and task forces at both the local and state level. “Become savvy political players. It’s a powerful statement and good use of time when CEOs serve on advisory committees, cultivate relationships with public officials and host forums,” Thibault says.
In all your advocacy efforts, ISPA is available to help put you in touch with the right people, assist with your messaging or set up meetings.
“We’re just an email or phone call away and are happy to help in any way,” Clarke says. “That what we’re here for.”
A Louder Voice
As a trade association, ISPA is here to help by advocating on behalf of the bedding industry
While you are busy designing new
products, improving your plant’s efficiencies or attending to myriad other aspects of your manufacturing business, the International Sleep Products Association is tracking bills, meeting with lawmakers and regulators, and advocating in other ways on behalf of the bedding industry.
Advocacy at both the state and federal levels has long been a part of ISPA’s mission and a key focus of its activities.
“The strength of a trade association is that, as an individual member, you don’t have to stand up by yourself on an issue,” says Marie Clarke, vice president of policy and government affairs for ISPA. “You can use the trade association to speak on behalf of the entire industry. It’s a louder voice.”
Last year alone, ISPA tracked more than 160 bills on a broad range of issues affecting the mattress industry in 28 states and the District of Columbia. These included 48 bills related to flame retardants and other chemical regulations, and 47 bills related to mattress recycling and product stewardship. Other bills ISPA tracked related to blanket chemical authority (23 bills), general mattress/bedding (17), per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS (10), lead and phthalates (8), and bedbugs (9).
The 2019 report contains detailed information about the bills ISPA tracked, including a summary of each piece of legislation and the last action taken on it — enacted, failed, failed sine die (legislature adjourned before scheduling further action), etc. It is available on the ISPA website, SleepProducts.org, at no cost to members.
With the Trump administration’s emphasis on federal deregulation, ISPA’s attention since 2017 has been less directed toward federal agencies — including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which writes and enforces many of the federal product standards that affect the mattress industry — and more focused on legislative activity in the states, Clarke says. She also serves as vice president of industry and external affairs for the Mattress Recycling Council, the nonprofit organization that manages mattress recycling programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
“The executive branch has been rolling back regulations and not promulgating new ones,” Clarke says. “We still monitor at the federal level, but from an industry perspective, there are fewer regulations coming out of the federal government.”
Bills in legislatures throughout the country — and especially in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington — kept ISPA’s advocacy team busy in 2019.
“We are pleased with the outcomes on critical pieces of legislation this year in states like Minnesota and Maine. … The overall results of the ISPA advocacy efforts have been positive, and the industry will benefit from our efforts on its behalf,” according to the year-end report.
Because 2020 is an election year with a presidential race commanding attention and lawmakers in many states themselves on the ballot in November, legislatures may take up fewer bills this year, Clarke says.
“But at the same time, sometimes lawmakers up for election want to make sure their constituents see they are working hard, so they may introduce more legislation,” she says.
ISPA has many ways of advocating for the sleep products industry, including reaching out to the sponsors of bills and other key lawmakers to explain industry concerns and positions; submitting formal comments; and testifying at legislative committee or rule-making hearings. In addition to Clarke, ISPA’s advocacy team includes Ryan Trainer, ISPA and MRC president, and Grant Johnson, ISPA policy and government affairs coordinator.
The association works with other trade groups, such as the American Chemistry Council and the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, on bills and regulations that would impact a broad array of manufacturers. “Our focus is on protecting the interests of the mattress industry, but where we can, it’s helpful to have a united voice that can speak on behalf of many industries, and we will coordinate messaging and efforts,” Clarke says.
ISPA’s advocacy team works closely with ISPA members to shape the association’s positions on proposed legislation, for example, conferring with the association’s Sleep Products Safety Council or members in a specific state.
“We need to prioritize the bills that ISPA engages on, so we’ll poll the SPSC or another relevant group of members,” Clarke says. “They’ll help us better understand the impact of a piece of legislation on the industry. We’ll ask, ‘Is this something that will harm your business? Is this something you want us to engage on?’ When we are dealing with an issue at the federal level, such as the trade and tariff issues last year, we will reach out to the wider membership to get feedback.”
The SPSC takes a lead role in advising ISPA’s government affairs team on a number of legislative and regulatory issues, in part because of the SPSC’s mission. As Norman Enix, SPSC chair, explains, “The mission of the Sleep Products Safety Council is to provide consumer information, support research and promote activities that advance the safety of sleep products. Safety and compliance with regulatory requirements are primary concerns. The regulatory landscape today is very complicated, and we see activity at local, state and federal levels. Each sector has their own ideas on what should be required and this inconsistency can place a burden on the mattress industry. SPSC reviews, tracks and recommends changes to a number of legislative and regulatory agencies that could affect mattress manufacturers.” Enix is director of environmental health and safety for Elite Comfort Solutions LLC, based in Newnam, Georgia. and has served on the SPSC for more than 10 years, two of those as chair.
In some circumstances, ISPA may ask members themselves to contact officials directly. “If a member has a presence in a legislator’s district or an existing relationship with a lawmaker, we may ask them if they are willing to make a phone call, send a letter or meet in person, and we will, if the member wants, help them craft the message,” Clarke says.
Enix encourages ISPA members to get involved with the association’s advocacy efforts and to utilize the advocacy tools ISPA makes available to them.
“Being involved provides an opportunity to be proactive — comment on a bill before it becomes law, for example,” Enix says. “In addition, you can maintain awareness of existing regulations across multiple markets so that your products will be in compliance with applicable local, state and federal regulations. Compliance is complicated. ISPA members have resources available to provide guidance on compliance issues.”
As part of its advocacy efforts, ISPA also educates lawmakers and regulators. Clarke points to an FR bill introduced in California in 2018 that, as originally drafted, would have conflicted with requirements in the federal flammability standards for mattresses.
“Lawmakers have their constituents’ interests in mind and their own agendas,” Clarke says. “They are almost always coming from a good place, but they don’t always understand the implications of what they are proposing. So, a lot of what we do is education.”
Take Your Message to the People
There are ways to advocate for your business and policies you support outside direct legislative or regulatory channels.
For instance, you can build support for your position on an issue by writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper or by writing a longer article for its op-ed pages, according to a how-to advocacy and government relations manual from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Those pieces can be repurposed, if appropriate, on your social media feeds and sent to elected officials.
On hot-button issues, you may want to hold a news conference. This can be especially effective if you collaborate with other companies concerned about the same issues.
Pay Attention to the Legislative Calendar
The International Sleep Products Association offers easy ways for mattress manufacturers and suppliers to stay up to date on pending legislation and regulatory changes that might impact your business.
But it will help your own advocacy efforts to keep an eye on your local government’s meeting schedule and your state’s legislative calendar. Some legislatures meet annually, while some meet every other year — and most are in regular session only for a few months. Also, pay attention to filing deadlines for bills.
One of the mistakes companies make is “not getting involved early enough to shape legislation — being reactive rather than proactive,” writes John Thibault, founder of a cloud-based lobbying platform called iLobby, in a blog on the company’s website.
In election years like this one, you may have more opportunities to bend lawmakers’ ears when they are actively campaigning and making a lot of public appearances. During downtime when legislatures aren’t in session, you can meet with lawmakers to advocate for (or against) legislation that is expected to be introduced, perhaps a bill that failed last time around that may be re-introduced. Between sessions also can be an ideal time to educate your representatives about issues facing your company, manufacturing sector or the broader mattress industry.
Tips for Dealing with Regulators
Once a bill is passed, signed and becomes law, regulatory agencies typically flesh out the details, policies and procedures, and handle enforcement. (“Bill” of Schoolhouse Rock fame left that part out when explaining the legislative process in that catchy “I’m Just a Bill” tune.)
Here are some ways you can work with regulators:
• Establish relationships with regulators, who often are “career” employees of the agency with experience and long tenures.
• Ask to be added to the agency’s mailing list or email list.
• Get to the regulatory agency early with your comments. Don’t wait until the proposed regulations are near completion. (The International Sleep Products Association works on behalf of mattress manufacturers and suppliers to explain the industry’s position on regulations as they are drafted and encourages members to speak out during public comment periods.)
Source: Establishing a State Government Relations Program from the American Society of Civil Engineers
Editor’s note: Before contacting or interacting with elected officials or regulators on behalf of your company, consult with your legal counsel to make sure your actions don’t violate lobbying regulations at the local, state or federal level.