By Trenton Chang
2017 ILF Civic Fellow, Stanford University
“Washington often feels like a small town. After all, it is but a small piece of land carved from the shores of the Potomac—yet it is overwhelming at first. For instance, it is the capital of a nation of three hundred million people, where decisions that change the world are made daily. It is a machine, tirelessly running with myriad gears and wheels: from the staffers to the office workers to the politicians on the Hill.
The lobbyists too have a part to play in this world, but their world is not too well understood. The cacophonous fanfare around elections ensures that the average citizen has some marginal idea what a senator, congressperson, or president does. But the public conception of lobbyists is rather foggy by comparison—they appear as distant corporate figures in a world of scheming and invisible deal-making. They are, in a sense, a metonymy in the public imagination, the corporate and political personified, diffusing freely between the edge of the public and private sector.
So it was a welcome peek into another facet of the political sphere when we had the opportunity to understand the lobbyist’s world firsthand. Allen Chew and Jason Olson, two lobbyists for telecommunications and entertainment company AT&T, provided an insightful look into the world of lobbying Tuesday night at the AT&T Forum for Technology, Entertainment, and Policy, discussing the challenges of navigating the disparate cultural and political landscape that lies inevitably at the intersection of corporations and politics.
Olson, who primarily lobbies foreign governments today, had developed a passion for public policy from his time at North Dakota State University from his undergraduate years. Though he studied Political Science and Economics, his contact with the mayor of Fargo, ND, his hometown, piqued his interest in the nature of policymaking. After an internship with AT&T in St. Louis, Olson soon found himself meeting with state and local governments throughout the western part of the United States on behalf of AT&T, furthering company goals. His main piece of advice? “No permanent enemies,” he said, smiling. “You never know who you’re going to need help from.”
Chew, a Congressional lobbyist, took a dramatically different path—in his own words, “unorthodox”—on his way to lobbying. “If you had told me ten, fifteen years ago that I was going to be a lobbyist—I’d be like, ‘What’s a lobbyist?’” he joked. Chew, who began his journey studying International Relations at Marquette University, built up a diverse portfolio of work experience for various companies in sectors including financial services after college before finding himself in governmental affairs as a lobbyist for DIRECTV. Unlike many of his coworkers, he noted that he had little experience on Capitol Hill prior to the job. One of his main takeaways was the importance of luck and timing. Combined with hard work and perseverance, these factors propelled Chew to his present success.
So how do lobbyists do their job? They act as almost liaisons between the private and public sector, working to implement company policies both nationwide and worldwide for their customers. For example, for an AT&T phone to work consistently worldwide, meticulous technological regulation is required. Such policies do not necessarily come from one person: they may come from the CEO, other executive officials, or even from various teams in the company. Obviously, many hours of preparation go into a short discussion with an elected official, but, according to Chew, one of the most important factors to consider is the audience. For Chew, who deals with members of Congress, it is essential to keep in mind a litany of factors such as the type of district the congressperson represents, and to approach them with the information and advice that is most relevant to their situation. For Olson, who largely lobbies foreign governments, it is especially important to note the cultural and political differences across the world and their effect on business policy and decision-making. One particularly important takeaway from both of them: “Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
After we thanked Chew and Olson for their insights into lobbying, we were led on a brief tour of the Forum. The Forum itself is a multiple-purpose space, featuring a TV studio and rearrangeable meeting spaces, and technological innovations like virtual reality headsets and police bodycams. It was then that I noticed that the room itself exuded a particularly futuristic air—busy, shiny, and tech-savvy—and amidst the buzz of excitement I realized that this place was, somehow, especially apt for a discussion of lobbying. What place would these new-fangled gadgets and marvels have in our future? Perhaps therein lies the lobbyist’s place: one seat at the table of the future as we strive to understand the ever-changing shapes of technology, democracy, and humanity.”