What is the single biggest mistake animal advocates can make when trying to work with lawmakers on animal issues in their communities? Ryan Clinton, who helped make Austin, Texas the largest no-kill city in the U.S., says this: “It’s for advocates to go to their city hall, make a presentation, be roundly ignored, and conclude from that experience that a problem cannot be fixed.”
Clinton is an Austin appellate attorney and partner at the boutique litigation law firm Davis, Gerald & Cremer. He’s handled many high-profile cases in Texas, including the state and federal litigation related to the tragic collapse of the Texas A&M Aggie Bonfire. Outside of work, Ryan is a committed community advocate and, he says, “a sucker for homeless dogs and cats.” He and his wife, Sarah, co-founded FixAustin.org, which was actively involved in working with Austin legislators to set an aggressive no-kill goal for their city, which is currently saving around 96 percent of its homeless pets.
Out of that experience, he suggests following these tips to help advocates in other communities from making that mistake and others, and get the best outcome for their efforts.
First, he said, “Take a big-picture view. Reform requires a long-term, pragmatic, somewhat difficult but very possible effort to effect real change in your community. Thinking you can just go to one meeting with signs and buttons and have the government change the way it works is not realistic.”
Next, his recommendation is that animal advocates take care to be as professional as possible. “Behave like the groups and individuals who really do effect change in your community,” Clinton advised. “They have a much longer-term horizon, a bigger perspective on creating change. It means building real organizations with real boards, with real websites, real communication tools, professional press releases, all the things that the groups and individuals who effectively influence government do.
“You know who those people are: lobbyists, lawyers, developers. They’re professional; they’re friends with council members. Everyone knows who the people are who create change, and what they act and look like, but for some reason they (animal activists) think they can do it completely differently. It’s irrational and it doesn’t work.”
Along the same line, his advice is to dress to impress. “Dress like a lobbyist,” was his suggestion. “Look, act, and sound like the people who you already know are influencing government. You wouldn’t clean a dirty litter box in a business suit, so don’t try to clean up city hall in sweat pants.”
Advocates also need to realize the value of relationships and how to build them. “Above all else, cultivate real relationships with the people who make decisions and the people who can affect those relationships,” he said. “No one is going to believe you if they don’t know who you are. I’ve often said that if your council member doesn’t stop to say hello to you in the supermarket, you can’t win.
“How do you get them to know you? Every elected official has an office and website and a phone number. You need to reach out and make contact. Once you’re ready to communicate what you want to say in a professional way, call their office and ask for a meeting to discuss your issue.”
Your first meeting will probably be with a staffer, not the elected official, he cautioned. “Their job is to screen out the crazies. Go meet with them. Talk with them. At the end of that meeting, ask what the next step is. Eventually, if you work hard and long enough and you’re prepared and have created a real organization, and behave professionally, you’ll meet with the council member.”
He also had advice about what to bring to the meeting. “You need to develop supporting materials: I like to bring bound copies of materials that look professional, with a logo on the front and an index. I want to leave them with more than I can communicate in the 20 minutes or so you usually get to meet with a council member or their aide.
“After you’re gone, they can read through what you left, get more information, and double-check you. It also sends a message that you’re serious and you’re prepared. They’ve done studies that show if someone gives a presentation without a PowerPoint or materials, and someone else gives the same presentation with them, the audience concludes the person with the PowerPoint and materials is more expert.
“It’s because we’re embedded with this bias toward stuff. We want to see some proof you know what you’re talking about. It’s a way to communicate to your audience that you’re legit, for real.”