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How to be the best public affairs advocate for your business

This fall, LaunchTN is hosting Startup Policy Workshops from Memphis to Kingsport, educating entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders on being politically engaged with lawmakers. Here’s a report from last week’s workshop in Nashville.

Last week at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, we heard from a panel of speakers on the how, why, and when of startup policy engagement. Attendees also had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with local legislators to share their stories.

Here are thoughts (lightly edited for clarity) from Alex Curtis, VP of Public Affairs and Communications for Nashville Tech Council; Sam Reed, co-founder at Jigsaw Consulting and former Director of Government Relations for Bird Rides; and Tracy Woodard, Director of Government affairs at Nissan North America.

What would you say to someone who is skeptical of talking to policymakers due to not knowing where to start?

Alex Curtis: The innovator’s question is about finding market opportunities and a problem to solve. They often don’t want to touch policy because they don’t want to hamper starting their business, but history says that at some point if you’re doing something that may involve government, whether in needing their support or needing to actually change laws, you’ll be farther ahead building those relationships early on.

Tracy Woodard: Working for Nissan, there’s an advantage to working for a large company in talking to legislators, but they would rather hear from people in their locales creating something from scratch and making an impact. States compete for economic development, the next niche of tech, R&D, and innovation. The more you can educate officials on what you’re doing and what you can do to change economies, tech, or society, they want to hear about it.

Sam Reed: You can help policymakers reach their goals, and in doing so improve the growth of your business. In the case of Bird, there was no regulation on dockless mobility, and Bird had to help cities come up with the rules. They brought it to market, then quickly created a (still-evolving) policy solution for cities. At some point in your evolution as a startup, you’re going to need those government relationships.

Do you take steps to educate policymakers on things that might be coming down the line, whether a policy issue or just new developments in businesses?

TW: We will have policymakers come on plant tours, and we take that opportunity to educate them on what we’re doing, and we may tell them about current policy or business issues that may be helpful or hurtful. It takes establishing those relationships before they reach out to you asking for your opinion on a certain upcoming policy. But they don’t have to be in session, they don’t have to be around Nashville. Call or email them and see if they’re available to meet in their district.

AC: Nashville Tech Council has a legislative agenda, and when we put on issue-related events at our space, we try to make each of those events have at least one policymaker. They may be the regulator but not necessarily the expert, so having a roomful of people who care about an issue is meaningful to the legislator, and offers that opportunity for education.

TW: You don’t want a legislator or metro official saying, “Why didn’t you come talk to me about it?” after there’s an issue. Identify a legislator’s passions, and if you bring a similar idea to their interests, that can be a good alignment for both you and the legislator, and oftentimes a legislator can open doors for you and your business.

Any tips on educating legislators on policy issues impactful to you?

AC: Groups that share the same interests can bring innovators together to create a cohesive, clear message on an issue. Net neutrality, for example, is a complicated issue that can be broken down in simple terms for easier understanding.

SR: When engaging with legislators, you need to understand that very few of them have it as their full-time job. They’re people, and they often do this job part-time. If you connect with them with the understanding that making policy is just a feature of what they do, you’re able to build that trust. Once you do that, you’re able to have those times when they agree with you and times when they disagree with you, but the trust and respect can still remain such that you’ll have it for the next time you meet with them. It can get personal in the political arena, but you are dealing with real individuals. Find your champions, don’t burn any bridges, and understand both sides of the issue — and that’s when they will trust you.

Any final words of advice for effective communication with legislators and policymakers?

TW: It can be useful to put things in terms of how this will help their district, and always be nice to their staff!

Looking to learn more about the intersection of policy and startups? Join our workshops in Knoxville, Nov. 18, and Cookeville, Nov. 19. For more info on becoming the best public affairs advocate for your business, contact topher@launchtn.org.