Drinker Biddle & Reath cultivates the ‘grass tops’ over grass roots

Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST - Drinker Biddle's Julie Allen and Erin Will Morton conduct a workshop on lobbying techniques.

Annette Iacono, vice president of a small clinical laboratory in Brookhaven, Pa., joked to lobbyist Erin Will Morton, “Have you reached puberty yet?”

Iacono and Morton, a health care lobbyist at Drinker Biddle & Reath, were role-playing what might happen the next day when Iacono headed to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers about cuts in Medicare payments to labs that could hurt her business. Iacono was making light of a common misstep — being dismissive of youthful-looking congressional staffers — and the exchange was part of a training session Morton and fellow lobbyist Julie Scott Allen put on last week for 40 managers of small and mid-size laboratories on how to meet with elected officials.

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The 90-minute crash course is part of a multi-pronged advocacy campaign Morton and Allen designed for the National Independent Laboratory Association, a trade group that represents small clinical labs. It is centered around the idea that lawmakers may respond better to voters and their personal stories than they might to a paid lobbyist.

Drinker Biddle, whose 20-member lobby shop specializes in health care, has long offered such training to clients, for years holding similar sessions for several hundred people at a time before they were to meet with Congress members. But Drinker Biddle’s smaller, targeted training with NILA is part of the firm’s push to fine-tune this approach by zeroing in on a subset of constituents from specific states and districts whose interests align with those of the lawmakers they’re meeting with. Iacona, for example, runs the Pennsylvania-based Brookside Clinical Laboratory — which serves patients in Delaware — so the firm helped set up meetings between Iacona and representatives from both states.

“It used to be the focus was bringing in 100 to 500 people from across the country, doing a big training, then blitzing the Hill,” said Ilisa Halpern Paul, who chairs the lobby group at Drinker Biddle. “We still do that ... However, we’ve added hand-picking advocates from a particular set of districts or states and doing a very tailored, more intensive training with them.”

Grass roots gives way to ‘grass tops’

The more-targeted training is part of a shift the firm is making to broaden the types of advocacy services they offer clients, which include trade associations like NILA, as well as nonprofits and corporations whose CEOs undergo similar training before heading to Capitol Hill.

The change comes at a time some lobbyists and public relations specialists are pushing to make the lobbying industry more grass roots, and some lobby shops are expanding services that don’t fall under the traditional definition of lobbying.

Paul describes the firm’s shift as a move toward “grass tops,” as opposed to grass roots.

“Grass roots is about the quantity — having as many bodies and voices as possible,” she said. “ ‘Grass tops’ is about a smaller group of people who are from those targeted areas developing close one-on-one relationships with officials.”

Drinker Biddle designed its first formal “grass tops” training program for the Oncology Nursing Society in 2005, and has since created similar programs for the Spina Bifida Association and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. The cancer alliance, with Drinker Biddle’s help, just unveiled a new advocacy program called Grasstops to systematically recruit people who care about ovarian cancer research funding, and train them through webinars and online courses on how to network with elected officials, organize local meetings and keep a log of their advocacy activities.

The idea is that successful lobbying is not just a one-off meeting between a lobbyist and a lawmaker, but that it takes sustained contact between Congress and constituents who need the right tools and training to effectively communicate their concerns to their representatives.

“Five or 10 years ago, it was more focused on traditional lobbying — us doing shoe-leather lobbying,” Paul said. “We still do those pieces, but now we’re adding these other service lines ... Rather than it being one-hit wonders, we’re working with clients to do this 360-degree work, to say, ‘Here’s what you as advocates can do ... There are lots of opportunities to use other advocacy tools with our clients to help them advance their issues.”

 
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