Why we should 'waive the shake' this season

Why we should 'waive the shake' this season
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In the world of government relations and lobbying, the handshake is the universal gesture of interaction. We shake hands in greeting, at the moment of agreement, and when parting. At this time of year when Capitol Hill is besieged by trade and issue fly-ins, throngs of citizens seeking “redress of grievances,” and lobbyists promoting their clients, the handshake may be the most prominent symbol of our profession.

COVID-19, however, is about to change all that.

At the time of this writing, there were more than 90,000 cases worldwide, over 3,000 deaths and the contagion was starting to take hold in U.S. communities. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly has cautioned, COVID-19 is easily transmitted, highly contagious and more lethal that the seasonal flu.


So, what is the lobbyist to do, if anything, to help limit the spread of this virus and not see hesitation in every lawmaker we approach? There are the usual options of coughing and sneezing into our elbow, washing hands frequently and using alcohol-based sanitizing wipes, and of course just staying home if we feel sick.  

But, for a profession that relies so heavily on organizing coalitions of like-minded stakeholders, and conveying those interests to lawmakers over a handshake and dialogue, how else are we to navigate these new challenges?  

In the past week I’ve attended several events involving lawmakers — three of which offered telling reactions. One lawmaker kept papers in one hand and his cell phone in the other to keep from having to shake hands. At another event, the member entered the room, waved to all and sat down without shaking a single hand. In the third, the member looked momentarily terrified at an extended hand, and thankfully all in the room broke out in laughter about the shared concerns. The subsequent conversation went on for 15 minutes about how coronavirus is shaping discourse in the Capitol.

Here are three contributions we can make to limit the spread of coronavirus while still serving the interests of our clients and being sensitive to the concerns of elected representatives.

First, we can “waive the shake.” This is a simple way to put our audience at ease from the moment of introduction. While elected officials and their staff expect to shake dozens of hands each day, in this season of coronavirus they will appreciate an alternative gesture that respects their hopes of staying healthy until the current crisis is resolved. Trust me, they’re not going to be insulted if you offer to protect their health. A few accompanying words can go a long way to ensure they understand your intent, for example, “I promise to shake your hand twice when we’re finally able to wave goodbye to coronavirus.” 

Is it ideal? No. Cautious and considerate? Yes.

Second, if you participate in fly-ins be prepared for a change of plans.  Fly-ins represent the perfect storm of conditions for the spread of viral contagions — large groups of people mingling in close quarters, traveling through busy airports and confined aircraft, and then spending long days of “grips and grins.” According to news reports, group travel in the first quarter of 2020 has plummeted as more people exhibit caution. Trips are being canceled, hotel reservations are down, and conferences are being rescheduled. We should expect the same with spring fly-ins.

Instead, consider virtual meetings and telecoms with the aid of such providers as GoToMeeting and Zoom that offer ways to connect with your audience while protecting all from sharing the air we breathe and the germs we may inadvertently touch. You’ll still be able to deliver your persuasive message.

Finally, if there’s even a remote chance that you feel sick, or may have come in contact with an infected person, do everyone a favor and stay home. We get that you want to be in that meeting. Throughout our careers we’ve been reminded of the importance of being in the room when decisions on our issue are discussed. We’ve all heard that “if you’re not at the table, you’re what’s on the table” and “to be in the know you need to be in the room.” Take a deep breath. If there’s a chance you’re sick, then ask for a call-in number and any other opportunity to provide your input. Feel free to share your information and opinion, but not those germs. You will gain more good will by staying home and sharing your valuable perspective remotely, than demanding to be included and potentially infecting everyone else.

If all goes well, you will stay healthy, your audience of public officials and staff will appreciate the gestures intended to respect their concerns, and we can all soon get back to cooperating on resolving the many challenges facing our communities. So, for the foreseeable future, let’s all just start by “waiving the shake.” If you do, you’ll likely see concern replaced by relief and appreciation. When we’ve each done our part to limit the duration and transmission of the coronavirus, and it is in the rearview mirror, we’ll have accomplished something valuable that we can all shake hands on.

James Hickey is president of the Government Relations Association, which represents government relations, lobbying, public policy, fundraising and grassroots professionals.  He has been practicing government relations for 34 years in Washington.