- Despite a weak economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, there are plenty of job opportunities in the political influence industry.
- Even new or entry-level lobbyists can earn salaries in the high 5- and low 6-figures.
- Lobbyists represent a range of special interests, from big corporations and unions to small trade associations and ideological groups.
- “You don’t have to sell your soul to be a lobbyist,” one long-time public interest lobbyist insists.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Democrats control Congress, Joe Biden is president, and thousands of new political appointees will soon populate federal government agencies.
No matter the battered economy and COVID-19 restrictions: Prospects are prime in 2021 for pursuing a job as a professional lobbyist tasked with influencing these officials.
While lobbying scandals still haunt the industry, the caricatured lobbyist of yore — bespeckled, backslapping, wrapped in Armani and questionable morals — is an increasingly endangered species in a post-#MeToo Washington, DC.
This makes the lobbying industry a more appealing career path than ever, especially for women and people of color, several veteran lobbyists tell Insider.
“It’s not sitting in smoky rooms sipping cognac in the dark,” said Courtney Snowden, who’s opening her own firm after serving last decade as Washington, DC’s deputy mayor for economic opportunity, and before that, a Raben Group lobbyist. “You can deeply impact people’s lives. I think it’s one of the best jobs in the world.”
The fundamental right to lobby is enshrined in the US Constitution’s 1st Amendment — the part about Americans’ freedom to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
And modern lobbyists together represent almost every conceivable special interest: massive corporations and labor unions; archconservative and ultraliberal activist organizations; trade groups for marijuana, music, packaged ice, atheists, tuna boats, snowmobiles.
Even the most modest, entry-level lobbying jobs for shoe-string special interests can score salaries in the high five-figures. The most experienced and well-connected lobbyists can expect to take home annual pay well into the six-figures — with the most renowned pocketing north of $1 million annually.
Before blindly diving into a lobbying job hunt, here are several tips from five professional lobbyists about how to become a paid political influencer.
Ask yourself: Do I have the right résumé?
Anyone can attempt to become a lobbyist.
But with nearly 12,000 registered federal lobbyists already working in Washington, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, competition for business is significant.
Don’t expect immediate success if you’re a political neophyte or lack relevant experience.
Several lobbyists recommend that anyone interested in a government relations career will need to honestly assess their résumé.
If you haven’t worked in government — particularly the federal government — or possess specific expertise in government policy matters, you’ll likely need to first score a job that helps you develop your skills and network of contacts.
Among the most salient skills, lobbyists say: researching governmental policy, possessing a commanding understanding of how government works, and concisely communicating complex topics to people in power, both in writing and face-to-face.
Read more: These 32 progressive power players are ready to push for big changes in the Biden administration
It’s a prime time to do so, particularly since the federal government is in the throes of a massive turnover with thousands of jobs in play.
Even a low-level job in a congressional office, for example, will place you in the crucible of the nation’s most notable political debates and decisions. And as lobbying isn’t only about twisting arms in pursuit of a governmental decision or legislative result, you’ll also learn vital lobbying industry skills of legislative researchers, coalition building, and interpersonal communication in the often cryptic language of governmentese.
“Think of it as building your personal brand, which takes experience and patience,” said Shore, a partner at Jochum, Shore & Trossevin PC who worked as an aide to Republican members of Congress during the 1990s and 2000s, and also, chief of staff for the House Republican Conference.
While in government, Shore developed expertise in health, trade, and digital communication policy. Because of his experience and relationships with people still in government, he said clients hired his firm to lobby against the Stop Online Piracy Act — a high-profile and controversial bill that critics argued would squelch free speech online.
“If you didn’t come from somewhere, lobbying is difficult to get into,” Shore said.
Get lobbying training
So, how does someone develop those three areas in the first place?
Nobody graduates from college with a degree in lobbying, after all. And unlike doctors or lawyers, you won’t be studying for a lobbying license or exam, either — there are no such things.
But say you’re fresh out of college or looking to break into government relations despite lacking requisite experience and skill.
The National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics, a DC-based nonprofit organization, offers members professional development sessions, briefings with congressional representatives, and a 12-course educational program through which one can earn a public policy certificate.
The group’s board of directors includes more than a dozen prominent lobbyists and government relations professionals.
Read more: Republican power is up for grabs in the post-Trump world. Here are the 16 GOP power centers that Joe Biden will have to contend with.
Earning a lobbying-adjacent graduate degree or certificate in public policy or political management could also pay dividends for those who can afford it — financially and time-wise. That’s because of the knowledge and practical experience gained through government or industry internships and fellowships.
It may also help you land a government job that serves as a bridge to the lobbying world.
“To be a great lobbyist you need to balance network, substantive expertise, and procedural expertise,” said Cristina Antelo, a principal at Ferox Strategies whose recent clients include Walmart and the Walt Disney Co. “Lobbyists can be strong in one of these areas, but the best lobbyists have a winning combination of all three. For anyone who is looking to improve their stature in lobbying, I think commitment to developing all three points is critical.”
Also don’t be shy about working LinkedIn connections or other contacts to schedule informational interviews or informal chats, Snowden said.
“In lobbying, you’re going to have to have the ability anyway to build meaningful relationships relatively quickly,” she said.
One practical consideration? Improve your sense of direction in Washington, DC, especially in preparation for when the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
The US Capitol complex is a literal labyrinth of marble-clad hallways, subterranean corridors, and unmarked doors behind which some of the nation’s most powerful people work. Access restrictions instituted following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol have further complicated matters. You’ll never know when you’ll need to get to a meeting quickly or chase after someone.
“You should know the buildings on the Hill, the tunnels, etc., in addition to the players,” said Kevin Cain, director for governmental affairs at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
Think hard: Big or small? Corporate or ideological?
Confident you’re ready to become a lobbyist?
Choosing what kind of lobbyist to become is a big decision.
Some professional lobbyists are “in-house,” directly employed by the company or interest group they represent.
Others work at for-hire firms that range in size from two or three people to a lobbying roster of hundreds.
Annual pay varies greatly: from the mid-five figures for an upstart sole proprietor or junior trade association lobbyists to hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) for top-tier influencers, such as former members of Congress who command three- and even four-figure hourly rates.
No matter your venue, “seek out opportunities first where you can have access to teach, coaching, and feedback from leaders in the industry,” Antelo said.
Cain is confident postings will proliferate in the coming weeks as the new Biden administration starts taking shape alongside the first Congress in more than a decade under all-Democratic control.
“Government continues to grow to meet threats such as recessions and pandemics, among other things,” he said. “Congress reacts to these threats by passing new laws or revising old ones. To me, that increases the need for advocates who can make sure their clients or constituents voices are heard.”
Have integrity — and don’t treat ‘lobbyist’ a dirty word
Antelo says she loves lobbying because of the “rush of being a zealous advocate and making policy arguments that influence our economy, environment, and society.”
She conveys what all the lobbyists Insider interviewed said in as many words: Most successful lobbyists aren’t embarrassed about being lobbyists.
Rather, they own their profession, and they approach their work with integrity, the lobbyists Insider interviewed say.
“Your reputation with members and staff is really your greatest asset,” Cain said. “You represent your clients’ interests at all times, but you never lie to a member or staffer, and you follow through on your promises. Those who do lie and do not follow through tend not to last very long.”
“They think of the Jack Abramoffs,” said Snowden, referring to the nation’s most notorious lobbyist who served prison time during the late 2000s and early 2010s for fraud, bribery, and tax evasion — and is scheduled to head back in an unrelated matter. “Well, he’s somebody who didn’t do what I do for a living,
Those impassioned by a certain ideological cause, and possessing a history of activism themselves, are likely to find lobbying a noble profession, says one lobbyist who’s made a career of it.
“There are many worthy causes to lobby for: strengthening our democracy, fighting for clean air and water, expanding affordable and accessible health care, and dozens of other ways to improve the lives of millions of Americans,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for public interest organization Common Cause and himself a registered federal lobbyist.
“You don’t have to sell your soul to be a lobbyist,” Scherb added.