The importance of prioritizing

The Congress and administration are moving fast and going in an activist direction. New bills, regulatory changes and directives are being proposed and then debated at light-speed.

For lobbyists, this means business as usual no longer works. It is not enough to be technologically savvy, to launch mass marketing or do old-fashioned, aggressive footwork in House and Senate offices. The key to success now means being nimble and ready for change at a moment’s notice.

For years, lobbyists enjoyed the privilege of routine. I know; I was there. One could plan activities, rallies and meetings weeks in advance without needing to alter the schedule. If a meeting at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays was scheduled, then by golly, that meeting was taking place, no matter what. Now, cancellations and the reasons behind them are just as important as the meetings we set.

I recently observed a situation in Washington in which a trade group lingered too long to address an immediate priority.

The group had a witness who was supposed to testify at a relatively low-level subcommittee meeting. This was the type of hearing where perhaps a chairman and one ranking member would show up and relatively few questions would be asked of witnesses.

This particular group handled the hearing by following its normal routine, which was to put all major resources and senior staff into witness/hearing preparation. But in this case, routine was the inappropriate response. It diverted the group’s senior staff from a more urgent matter that arose at the same time.

The trade group in question fell back on its usual standard: Everything comes to a stop to prepare a witness. However, the staff in this case was so focused on testimony preparation, rehearsing questions/answers, that everything else was dropped. Despite the fact this group testifies before Congress regularly, it acted almost as if this were the first time in years one of its members was appearing on Capitol Hill.

While all this preparation was occurring, it turned out the group nearly missed the ball on a major industry issue, and had to scramble to rectify the situation.

I believe the message here is clear. All of us on K Street must understand there are times when we will be blindsided. It is very difficult — even with great contacts and a top lobbying team — to anticipate every development. What is possible is to respond immediately and effectively to a development and to know when all other priorities must be set aside.

Yes, your chairman may be in town and is expecting you to be in a Senate office for a key meeting. Sure, you have committed to an essential policy lunch with other trade association heads that you would rather not cancel. You can think of any scenario to defend, but if the administration or Congress acts, and you are not ready to move, your constituency — and, yes, your industry — concerns could be at risk.

Every organization needs to adapt, and one can still be successful in this environment, fast-paced and changing as it is. It just means knowing the rules and being willing to hold ’em, fold ’em or even re-order ’em.

Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. He was a Democratic congressman from Florida from 1979-89.