What Common Federal Lobbying Mistake Nearly Ended Ford’s Financial Turnaround?

Constituents meeting with their Congressman. Image - America's Edge.A common lobbying mistake was nearly made by Ford CEO Alan Mulally, and it could have halted Ford’s turnaround in 2008/2009. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it still shocked me to read about it nearly being made by a Fortune 500 company.

In December 2008 Mulally was about to testify before Congress to ask for a “stand-by” $9 billion line of credit. Securing federal approval was key to Ford’s turnaround strategy. GM and Chrysler would be requesting bail-out loans at the same time, as the entire U.S. auto manufacturing and supplier industry was on the brink of financial collapse.

The Ford executive team worked on the messaging and documents over Thanksgiving. Here’s the official account from the book American Icon (NPR review and book excerpt):

“That evening the team huddled around the conference table in Mulally’s office going over the latest draft one more time. The continued tweaking it until they were all satisfied. Mulally thought it struck exactly the right note….but [CFO] Booth was still frowning.

“We really need to have this page look better,” he said. “Could we have some boxes that kind of call out key points or quotes?”

It was late. All the secretaries had gone home for the night. There was no one left in the building but the top executives a few of their aides. [General Counsel] Leitch was exhausted and he knew next to nothing about desktop publishing, but he agreed to try. He went home and spent the entire night trying to figure out how to create text boxes in Microsoft Word.

This is what I went to law school for? he though as he worked his way through the thirty-one-page document, picking out the best quotes. But Leitch had spent enough time in Washington to know they were the only part of the document most of the lawmakers would actually read,” (my emphasis) (pp 323-324, “An American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company” by Bryce G. Hoffman)

The common mistake in lobbying elected officials is to provide too much information that can’t be easily read and quickly understood. It’s an easy mistake to make – we have so much important information to share!

But as the Ford exec pointed out, elected officials and staff are almost always too busy to read those beautiful reports and briefing books we lovingly compile. Your documents (preferably limited to 1-3 pages with lots of white space and a few maps/photos) must be visually attractive, using different font sizes and styles (e.g., bold, italics) so that the documents can be quickly read and synthesized.

Ideally, your documents are simply providing additional background information that supplement what you’re telling them in person.  But events can intrude: your meeting may be cancelled at the last minute. Your documents will be left behind for staff to read. Or when you show up for the meeting, the Member or staffer may say “I’ve got to walk over to the Capital for a vote.  Walk with me, and tell me your story on the way.”

So you need to prepare for that possible outcome as well. My favorite trick was to give my executives a one minute version of our five or ten minute talk, just to be on the safe side.  And sometimes I made them practice the one and five minute talk while walking.

Another common mistake that Ford didn’t come close to making: “the ask.” Always know, going into the meeting, what your “ask” or request is.  Even if you don’t really have one, for example: “We’re not asking you to do anything right now…we just wanted to put this on your radar screen in case circumstances change and we need to return to make a request of you.”

Finally, on behalf of all public affairs and congressional staffers: PLEASE PRACTICE your talk, with a stopwatch! You’d be amazed how few people do this. The frequent result is running out of time and leaving key points unspoken, or going over time and annoying staffers. They start thinking about that next group waiting to see him/her, instead of focusing on your message.

 Cover photo: Constituents preparing to lobby Congress. Image – David Sachs, SEIU