Lobbying for small business owners: Everything you need to know
Lobbying for small business owners comes with a specific set of challenges, but it should still be considered a viable tactic to improve financial and compliance outcomes, writes Mark Phillips.
Everyone knows the role big business plays in politics and the influence large corporations can have on government via professional lobbyists and donations, but where does that leave Australia’s small business owners and the more than 4.7 million people they employ?
Fortunately, there is strength in numbers, which is why bodies such as the Australian Small Business and Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO), among others, as well as more industry-specific associations, exist.
“My office has the legislative powers needed to effectively influence our nation’s lawmakers, ensuring legislation and regulations are put in place to help small businesses grow,” says inaugural ASBFEO Kate Carnell.
Major industry organisations have the resources and clout to lobby for changes to big-picture regulatory and compliance issues, but at a grassroots level, it’s easy for many small business operators to feel isolated and powerless.
How to empower a cause
Having to contend with everything from customer parking issues, trying to obtain permission for alfresco dining or live music at night, the red tape can seem too hard. For example, according to the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), starting a coffee shop in New South Wales requires 43 separate licences.
Marketing professor Amy H. Handlin, author of Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government, says forming a coalition is one of the most effective things small business owners can do.
No matter the sector you’re in, seek out other operators – either in the same or different industries – who want the same things and band together to increase resources for lobbying, whether that be through advertising, making phone calls, writing letters, meeting legislators or even hitting the hustings.
A very cost-efficient option is to articulate grievances in the local media, as elected officials will generally take notice of what it reports.
“If the nature of your issue is such that it affects others as well, amplify that with the megaphone of a coalition,” Handlin wrote in her book, also noting that such a coalition needn’t consist exclusively of other business owners.
“If you’ve done a good job of building a loyal customer following, enlist them in your cause,” said Handlin.
“Adept use of your website and social media can help as well.”
How to get a good hearing
Given Australia’s 18 May Federal Election, now is a great time for small business owners to go on the front foot.
Every individual and SME has the right to contact their representatives and directly voice their views. In the lead-up to elections – especially at the state or federal level – it is certainly what large trade organisations and corporations do to influence policy on broader issues.
But Handlin believes the real window of opportunity for individual small businesses is the post-election period.
“When elections are over, lobbying begins,” she says.
“Politicians may be listening more intently than they will again for a long time to come.”
Handlin emphasises the importance of relationship-building as well as the fact that after voting is over and before politicians are knee-deep in legislation is the best time to get to know representatives and for them to get to know you and the key issues impacting your business.
Ideally, the time to start lobbying politicians is before you actually need something specific from them. Even though one representative may not be able to deliver the desired outcome, because politics is based on relationships, establishing good rapport will in all likelihood open doors to other contacts who can.
Whichever the level of the elected official you’re dealing with – local, state, or federal – there are ground rules.
Handlin offers these tips:
- Create a strong message framed around a larger community issue.
- Research the precise details of the issue in question, and stay up to date with pending legislation that could potentially affect your business. At a local level, a good way to do this is by attending council meetings.
- Know that you’re important because as most small businesses don’t lobby, the ones that do have extra clout.
- Remember that lobbying takes time, but time spent now is time saved later.
In the long run, it could also protect and grow your business.