Lobbying is a public relations exercise that anyone can do – with a little know-how. It can achieve spectacular outcomes, but many people fear or dislike lobbying. Linda Vining shows how a community-based preschool secured a new home by persistently putting its case on the political agenda.

A tiny fig tree symbolises the connection between the old derelict and abandoned SOS Preschool in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and a beautiful new SOS Preschool just a kilometre away. Relocation had been a long hard battle that involved years of lobbying to different levels of government.

When the preschool’s director, Carol Meth, closed the doors on the old preschool, she spotted a small fig seedling struggling to survive in the rusty gutter above the front door. With as much care as she tends her children, she dug the little seed from its precarious position and planted it in a pot. At the opening celebration of the new SOS Preschool the tree seeding was replanted as a symbol of struggle and growth.

My son Ben attended SOS preschool 20 years ago and during that time I was a member of the preschool’s parent management committee. It was the early days of the preschool, so we planted many trees to provide a shady oasis. I was invited back to the opening ceremony of the new premises, to say a few words and replant the baby fig. As I listened to the other speeches and viewed the handsome scrapbooks that have become the history of the preschool, I realised just how much effort had gone into securing this facility. It had taken the director and her helpers two decades of lobbying to reach this
moment.

The preschool had originally leased a building from the Department of Defence on a former navy site at Randwick. When the land was rezoned for residential housing, the preschool wanted to be relocated within the housing development in a permanent home. ‘While ever we occupied a dilapidated building on land with an uncertain future, it was impossible to make long-term plans or raise funds,’ said Carol. After exhaustive lobbying of local, state and federal governments, a spacious site was allocated in the new Randwick Community Centre.

SOS’ tactics are worth noting. The preschool never let the cause slip off the local or state government agenda. Carol employed every strategy she could think of, and, at the opening ceremony, the local member of parliament praised her for her tenacity and said it was the best example of community lobbying and marketing he had seen. So let’s examine how she did it.

Lobbying at work
Lobbying is giving views and information to decision-makers to influence them towards the action you want. It involves contacting officials at local and government level who make the laws and policies, communicating your wishes and opinions, challenging the arguments of opponents and demonstrating wide support for an issue. Some organisations hire a public relations firm to lobby for them but you can initiate change yourself. Anyone can lobby. Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’

Lobbying is a smart public relations tool, but it takes a lot of effort on the part of many people and it can be a slow process, nevertheless, it can provide effective leverage. If you have something you want to achieve, try the following tactics, which are illustrated with examples from SOS Preschool.

Define a clear aim
Know what you want and divide it into small achievable steps. It’s not enough to have strong views on an issue; you need to support your approach with accurate, up-to-date information from respected sources (studies, statistics, case studies, reports). Define and articulate what you want and have specific
recommendations.

Identify decision-makers
Find out who can help you. Depending on your cause it may be local council members, state politicians, parliamentary representatives, bureaucrats and business owners. People keep changing, so be prepared to present your cause to influential decision-makers over and over, as they come and go. Know the best time to lobby by keeping track of publication deadlines and meetings so you can contact decision-makers or make a presentation before decisions are passed.

Maintain awareness
Keep your support base informed. This includes present and former students, staff and parents. Conscript volunteers to the cause and get them to write letters. Hundreds of letters. Prepare a one-page handout and go to local shopping centres, sister organisations and community rallies.

‘We used every means we could think of to gain recognition and to keep reinforcing to the public how vital a service we provide,’ said Carol. Think tactically. Prepare a short oral presentation and determine whom you should approach. Use a variety of methods such as face-to-face meetings, email, letters and fax. Be brief, clear and always polite. Remember to follow-up every contact. Follow-up a meeting with a thank you and send any additional material that may have been requested. After a vote has been taken, follow up with a letter expressing thanks … or disappointment.

Media coverage
Strong headlines are a good way to get noticed and tell people what you want. The media likes a battle, so play on this angle. For example, two catchy headlines from SOS were ‘Preschool seeks a lifeline’ and ‘Randwick school sends out SOS.’

Keep track
Keep all the pictures, meeting minutes, letters and press clippings. At SOS, parents and teachers created two beautiful scrapbooks that tell the story of the struggle. In time, these archival records and keepsakes will be an inspiration to others. They were on display at the opening of the new preschool and were a very popular feature.
Be ready to move
When the decision you want comes through, be ready to act. It’s a good idea to build a fund. SOS grew a ‘future maintenance building fund’ that allowed them to equip the new facility without delay and open the doors quickly.

Celebrate achievement
Celebrate each small step to maintain momentum and reward your volunteers. And when the final moment comes let the emotion flow. ‘When we learned we were successful there was a great sense of relief and a good bit of crying’, said Carol.
Dr Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools Her new book PURPLE POWER for memorable school marketing is available from office@marketingschools.net