Q&A on Government Relations and Lobbying with Senior Advisor Roger Donoghue

Our team at Issues Management Group runs the gamut from interns still finishing college to legends of the public relations and lobbying world who have built long and impeccable careers in their fields. We sat down recently with IMG Public Affairs Senior Advisor Roger Donoghue, an attorney and proud son of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who has been lobbying legislators at the Massachusetts State House for more than thirty years.

Q: How has the work of a Massachusetts lobbyist changed over the years?

Roger: When I started, legislative sessions were one-year sessions, and there were between nine and eleven thousand bills filed every session – more than are filed now. But because it was a one-year session there was a greater sense of urgency. So, the work would begin as soon as practicable – once the clerks had assigned bills to committee the hearings would be up and running.

Now we have two-year sessions. In the first year of a two-year session, other than budget bills and a few other things, not a lot happens legislatively. Most of the law-making work is done in the second year. So that’s a huge change.

I think the other change is that years ago, being a legislator really was more of a part-time job. Many of the legislators had professions or full-time jobs that they went back to. Now it’s more of a professional legislature where, for the most part, this is their full-time job. I think that means they bring different sensibilities to the issues. I’m not making a judgement of whether it’s better or worse, but it is different.

Q: What is the value of a lobbyist when the legislature is more professionalized?

Roger: On the legislative side, the currency that lobbyists deal in is information. We’re regulated. We are only allowed to contribute a small amount of money to each legislator ($200 per year). We’re not even allowed to buy a cup of coffee. So, it’s our ability to understand, dispense information, and advocate on behalf of our clients. There are six or seven thousand bills filed every session. No matter how bright or competent a legislator is, none of them have the capacity to understand all of them.

On the client side, because it’s a professional legislature, I think there is less understanding in the building of how to run a for-profit business – of the business of business – which can be frustrating for clients who are private companies or professional institutions. I think it makes us as lobbyists more valuable, because, as advocates, it’s our job to explain and bridge the information gap between the business side and the legislative side.

Q: When most of the heavy legislative work takes place in the second year of a two-year session, what does the first year look like?

Roger: There’s a certain choreography to every aspect of the legislative process. Remember, there are 200 members of the legislature – 40 Senators and 160 Representatives.

Years ago, we worked on a bill for one of our clients. This particular bill had 120 co-sponsors, so one would think that with 60 percent of the legislature in support, this bill was going to sail through. The proponents happened to be a highly influential interest group, so they asked these 120 legislators to sign on and these legislators said yes. 

Working closely with our client, we noticed that the bill did not do what proponents said it did. So, we went to the lead sponsor and tried to explain to them what the bill actually did. To that sponsor’s great credit, they dug in and realized we were right. That began a fourteen-month process of hearings, and negotiation meetings between our clients and proponents of the bill. Ultimately, a bill got passed and signed by the Governor that both sides thought was reasonable. When the final vote came in the Senate, we shook hands outside the Senate chamber (the only time this happened in my forty-year career).

Before that vote took place, there was an enormous amount of education that had to happen over a fourteen-month period to persuade people. Because there are six or seven thousands bills filed, and because there are so many demands on legislators, you have a very brief window. If you have to make a long and complicated explanation of what something does, at some point their eyes glaze over. They start thinking about the next meeting, or what they have to do in the district that night. There’s a real art to try and synthesize a message in an abbreviated period of time to get their attention and help them understand.

Q: How do legislators get their information now, and how is information communicated back in their districts?

Roger: Before cable TV, before social media, there were very limited sources of information. In my world, the first thing I did every morning was read The Boston Globe, because print was the main source of information on the State House. And the State House press corps beyond The Globe had very robust membership. Now, because of consolidation, print journalism has diminished in influence, and it’s hard to get information from the State House into the districts.

This is an enormous problem for both constituents and legislators. How do you make sure that accurate information gets processed so that people can actually understand what’s happening? The way that issues now are processed is not from the inside of the State House out, but more often from the outside in. In today’s world, with such a watered-down palette of news outlets, having the ability to develop a message and figure out how to get it to people is critical during the first year of the cycle.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give any aspiring lobbyist?

Roger: The first thing I was taught in this business was that if you get caught in a lie the door is closed. And I think that’s true. You have to tell the truth. You also have to give the other side of the issue. You have to both be able to explain why your side of the issue is correct, but you also have to be able to explain the other side and why it is wrong. You have to be able to argue on both sides in order to succeed.

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