Business is tough throughout the country, but in parts of Georgia, things could be a whole lot worse.
In 2007, the Atlanta metro region was suffering through a Stage 4 drought. Officials in some cities and counties mandated that no tap water could be used for filling — or even topping off — swimming pools or spas.
“When the water restrictions first came, each county was making its own decision on whether or not they were going to allow pools to be filled,” recalls Shawn Still, general manager of Olympic Pool Plastering in Norcross, Ga. “So it didn’t become a statewide thing. We were dealing with this on a per-city basis, and different cities within different counties interpreted it differently.”
In response, Still’s plastering company purchased water trucks so it could import outside water into restricted areas, which allowed his company to continue operating. But even for businesses that could afford such a move, it was often more complicated.
“Various municipalities were putting a ban on issuing building permits,” Still says. “And it was threatening existing pools, where you couldn’t even top one off. So if the water level dropped off 2 inches, it was technically illegal to even put a hose in it to keep it operational.”
Once again, the industry was backed into a corner as a result of misinformation about pools and spas and water use.
To combat this, local businesses and the Georgia chapter of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals hired a public relations agency which generated stories in the popular press about the health and lifestyle benefits of pools and spas. They also contracted with a lobbyist, who enlisted the help of local professionals to solicit newspaper articles, meet with legislators and the governor, and give testimonies and presentations. The experience turned Still and others into amateur lobbyists.
The industry and its hired guns spread the word that pools and spas use less water than most people think — less than landscaping the same area, in fact. They also had to overcome the misconception that pools and spas are emptied frequently.
In addition, the industry conveyed the safety and economic risks of closing down public pools in the area.
After several months of committed effort, the Georgia industry convinced the governor to allow the filling of pools even in severe drought conditions.
Considering the number of districts and agencies that had to be brought on board, accomplishing this feat was akin to threading a needle, and was achieved by several dedicated players who stretched their abilities. While it’s true that few industry efforts reach this scale, any interaction with the government, whether it be appealing a permitting decision or trying to influence a state legislature, would benefit from the following guidelines for fighting city hall.
Many citizens allow emotion to get the best of them when dealing with government officials. They might express their frustrations by berating the person in authority or aggressively listing the reasons he or she is wrong.
But such behavior doesn’t change the fact that these officials have the upper hand. In fact, exhibiting hostility may cause an inspector or legislator to dig in their heels even deeper.
The bottom line: Don’t assume an air of entitlement. “Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean everybody else is going to be,” Still cautions. “Don’t assume that because you’re in their voting district or you’ve given them money that they owe you something. You’re one of many constituents, and there’s no guarantee.”
In addition to maintaining a respectful demeanor, professionals also should consider the official’s time and try to make their points briefly, whether in a letter or during a face-to-face meeting.
“When fighting a proposal to enact a new law, basically say what the current law is, why that’s effective, and specifically how [the proposed change] would adversely affect your business and consumers,” says John Norwood, president of SPEC, the California industry’s legislative advocate.
“You also need to tell them: ‘This is who I am, this is my business, this is how many people we employ in your district, this is the effect that this law will have on us.’ You need to be on point — you don’t need a lot of excess.”
Understand the issue in detail
Before pursuing an argument, professionals should flesh out their own reasoning as to why a decision should be overturned or a new law enacted. The argument should be based on sound logic, such as greater efficiency, fiscal responsibility, or the best interest of the population. It’s also important to read the actual text of the code or law that holds jurisdiction.
“It’s better to have the information first, rather than say, ‘Well, I’ve always done it this way,’ or, ‘This is just the way it’s done,’” says Paulette Pitrak, deputy executive director for the Northeast Spa & Pool Association. “Have documentation. If you have the code in your hand, that helps.”
Make face-to-face contact
Letters can get lost, and public testimonials tend to blend together in the minds of officials, unless he or she can connect a name with a face. That’s why it’s a good idea to start any advocacy campaign by meeting with officials or staffers most likely to agree with the industry’s position.
“Public testimony is good, but usually you have to do work before you get there,” Norwood says. “We don’t go to just a public hearing on legislation — we’re trying to talk to consultants, the committee chair, the vice chair and other members before we present testimony. Then they understand your issue. They oftentimes can’t deal with issues in enough detail at a hearing.”
On the local level, before appearing in front of a city council or board of supervisors, reach out to one or two members whose track record indicates they will be sympathetic to your cause. “If one of them becomes your advocate, they’ll make sure the others know there’s a relationship there, even if you’ve just met once,” Norwood says. “[They could say] ‘Listen to him all the way through. He’s got a good pitch.’”
At the end of any meeting, be sure to leave your contact information and offer to help in any way possible, whether it be answering questions or speaking to others.
Prepare for public addresses
If testifying, commenting or making a presentation at a public hearing or meeting, prepare in advance.
When a number of people are mobilizing together, it makes sense to choose the strongest public speaker to represent the group. One doesn’t need to be a certified Toast Master, as long as they have rehearsed any statement. It’s even acceptable to read directly from a written document.
When practicing a presentation, professionals should be mindful of imposed time limits. “Find out ahead how much time they allow,” Still says. “Is it two minutes, three minutes, five minutes? Certain city councils literally have a giant, digital clock on the wall, and it’s like the Oscars: When your time is up they’ll interrupt you and just cut you off. And that’s it. You’re over. If you haven’t made your point, you’ve wasted a great opportunity.”
Most importantly, do not become emotional: The biggest mistake is to turn such a presentation into a complaining session. Instead, come to a meeting with solid notes containing examples and data to back up any argument. This is an effort to persuade, not to get something off your chest.
Finally, it can be challenging to provide all the necessary information on a tight time limit, so Norwood of SPEC often leaves officials with a Frequently Asked Questions handout to enhance his presentation.
Treat every meeting like the first
The most intense lobbying efforts require speaking with dozens of different officials, some of them multiple times. When discussions have gone on for weeks or months, it’s easy to believe that the issue has become common knowledge. But pool and spa professionals should always begin a meeting by providing at least a brief synopsis of the issue at hand — even to officials who have already attended meetings on the subject.
“A lot of people in the pool business are in sales,” Still says. “They’re used to being able to say, ‘Alright, let’s get to the sale. What’s it going to take to get your buy-in on what I’m saying?’ But here, you’re starting over again and again. You can’t just go and say it one time — it’s 50 times to 50 different people.”
Consider affiliations with other industries and organizations
There is power in numbers — as long as everyone is on the same page. In California, for instance, several organizations from different industries all concerned with the issue of illegal contracting have joined forces to help their cause. So far it’s worked: This year, two bills were passed into law that are designed to make it harder for contractors to avoid buying workers’ compensation insurance.
However, such partners must be closely considered to make sure that no conflicting interests will surface down the road. When trying to forward the cause, for instance, might an electricians’ organization begin advocating language that requires an electrician to perform even the simplest electrical task on a pool or spa?
Mobilize the troops
A professional might be able to contest a permit decision on his or her own, but when it comes to codes and legislation affecting everyone, it’s best to have as many other professionals on the advocacy team as possible.
Time and money are scarce, so it may be difficult to convince others to join the battle. When trying to convince others to invest time or money into the effort, explain the big picture — what is at stake in terms of health and safety to consumers, as well as dollars and cents to each company.
Efforts such as the drought battle in Georgia or a series of legislative fights that took place in Texas three years ago required hard work from several individuals (see sidebar ). And so when coordinating multiple parties, it’s best to determine each person’s strengths and limitations in terms of time and talent.
In the case of the Texas effort, builder Debra Smith often would be called upon to drive to the state capitol for face-to-face meetings, since she was strongest in negotiating and educating. And, she had more time, since her sizable staff could manage the daily operations of her business for a day or two at a time. Kevin Tucker, the former public information officer for statewide advocacy group APEC, was a more gifted public speaker. Others who had time attended meetings to beef up industry representation, and some were asked to give smaller statements about proposed legislation.
But the majority of APEC members were primarily asked to be on call, ready at a moment’s notice to bombard their state senators’ and representatives’ offices with phone calls. “I got everyone’s e-mail address and told them if there was a certain bill coming up for vote, and I notified them by mass e-mail, they needed to immediately start calling their representatives,” Smith says. “For the most part, they did.”
Whatever the individual roles, each participant will be more successful when given specific directions, and if tasks are simplified as much as possible. For instance, if they’re charged with sending letters or making phone calls, give them form letters or scripts so they know what to say.
Those who will speak in public should be given talking points. This keeps everybody on message and makes each job easier and less intimidating, so that more professionals are willing to help. Also, try to simplify the process of making monetary contributions, by setting up a method for online donations, collecting checks at association meetings, or taking contributions by phone.
Seek outside help if necessary
When it comes to larger battles, pool professionals should not go it alone. Even when trying to advocate at the city level, industry organizations can help.
Those in California and Texas have organizations, SPEC and APEC, respectively, specifically tailored to lobbying for the industry. NESPA and the Florida Swimming Pool Association also have strong government relations arms for their jurisdiction, and have professional lobbyists contracted. For the rest of the country, APSP has been beefing up its government relations efforts by monitoring state legislation and reaching out to local governments when possible.
Some of these organizations can even help with permit or inspection issues.
If those resources don’t pan out for larger statewide efforts, professionals should consider going outside the industry and hiring a professional government advocate. A competent, experienced advocate will understand the process and personalities involved better than any pool and spa professional.
For instance, the public relations firm hired to help with the drought battle in Georgia knew that the editor of the state’s largest newspaper had something personal at stake — his daughter was a competitive swimmer. If public pools were to shut down, she could be less likely to gain a sports scholarship. This proved enormously helpful in the industry’s fight to beat back water restrictions.