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How lobbyists get the attention of the White House

David Gura May 3, 2013

How lobbyists get the attention of the White House

David Gura May 3, 2013

When it comes to the big issues of the day, special interests clamor for attention. The Sunlight Foundation crunched the data, and in the last five years, more than 3,000 lobbyists worked on immigration. 

It’s not as easy as it once was for a lobbyist to bend a politician’s ear, and perhaps no ear is harder to bend than the president’s. According to Politico, an advocacy group bought an ad on ESPN, hoping President Barack Obama — an avowed sports fan — would be watching. 

Lobbyists have free reign on Capitol Hill — the House and Senate office buildings are open to the public. Of course, access to the White House is different. Howard Marlowe, the president of Marlowe & Company, has been a lobbyist for more than three decades.

“We’ve had direct contact with the president’s office probably a half a dozen times,” he says. “And that’s all.”

The leader of the free world is a busy man. Andy Rosenberg, with Thorn Run Partners, says the number of visitors coming into the White House is tightly controlled, and so is information.

“The president has to be among the most insulated people on the planet,” he says.

Because of that, lobbyists have to be strategic.

“It’s not that you always have to bend the ear of the president, it’s that you have to get in to talk to the person who is going to talk to the president, and bend their ear first,” Rhone Resch says. He’s the president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

First, you have to identify that person. A good lobbyist cultivates connections. Resch says he knows where certain aides go to church, and what they read.

“We found that, one of the best ways is really through their kids.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association has a Little League strategy.

The group put up solar-powered scoreboards at baseball fields in Chevy Chase, a neighborhood, Resch says, that is home to many White House officials.

Lobbyist Paul Equale says gimmicks can be hit or miss. “The best way to get your point of view in front of the president is to be a major donor to his political party.”

That’s a strategy that has worked for decades, Equale says. And still has the best odds.

Here are tips, on how to lobby the executive branch, from the lobbyists I talked to:

President and CEO, Solar Energy Industries Association

“It’s not that you always have to bend the ear of the president, it’s that you have to get in to talk to the person who is going to talk to the president, and bend their ear first.”

“You know where they go to church. You know what magazines they read. It’s all very targeted.”

President, Marlowe & Company

“If you have relationships going, they are going to take your call.”


Partner, Thorn Run Partners

“Trying to get your message directly across to the president without going through the layers and layers that have been created in order to filter and limit his access to information is a monumental task, and probably involves a certain amount of luck.”

“One of the most basic tasks is identifying who within that bureaucracy is in a position to impact the policies that you care about.”

Practice Group Leader, Public Policy & Regulation Group, Holland & Knight

“On a daily basis now, there is just so much noise out there – for any decision maker.  Jumping on the radar screen so they’ll notice you is going to be complex, whether that’s a corporate CEO, the head of a baseball team, or someone running the greatest country in the world.”

“A good lobbyist is somebody who is there to educate a decision maker from the perspective of his client.  He is, of course, trying to persuade, but what he is really doing is providing information and providing facts, and the frist time you provide something other than a fact is the last time you’re going to talk to a person.”

Chairman, The Moffett Group

“I don’t feel like I pull a rabbit out of a hat – that sort of thing.  This is more in the trenches, get it done, tell the truth, know what your facts are, don’t  misstate them…  And I think most of the people who do what I do, we don’t ask anybody to do anything that we think would be stupid or politically bad for them.”

Founder and Chairman, Podesta Group

“Everyone reads Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook. Mike Allen puts out a daily summary of the news every morning, and it is followed religiously by every political actor and media person in Washington. So, if you want to get a message to opinion elites in Washington, they sell advertising in the middle of each Playbook.”

President, Equale & Associates

“It is a high-value equation to actually get your message to the president personally, and have the president actually consider it. So, because it is high value, people are willing to spend money for the chance to do that.”

Principal, Trilogy Advisors LLC

“It is up to the professional to use both friendships and professional expertise to devise the best ways to be able to offer information that is useful to policymakers in arriving at their decisions.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled John Sitilides’ name. The text has been corrected.

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