Does one office visit to your Member of Congress really matter? How about a social media post about an industry issue—is that just another drop in the sea of internet noise? Advocating for the industry, even in seemingly low-impact ways, can and does make a difference.
Defining an Industry Advocate
When you think of an industry advocate, who comes to mind? Is it someone who is constantly calling up their Members of Congress, asking them to support an issue? Someone who has spent hours researching every issue that affects the industry? Not according to Margaret Hardin, NACS government relations manager.
“Being an industry advocate does not have to be all-consuming,” Hardin said. “The best way to be an advocate for the industry and for yourself is to tell your story and be the face of the industry. That is what makes the most impact.”
Matthew Durand, vice president of corporate affairs at Westborough, Massachusetts-based EG America, said there are three key aspects of being an industry advocate. Like Hardin, he said the first key is embracing your story.
“You can bring to the table the unique story of your business, the impact you have on the community and the impact an issue has on you,” he said. “You don’t have to be an expert in … the political process …. You can supplement that by explaining how [an] issue impacts you in the real world. That can be really compelling to lawmakers, the general public or whoever your audience is when you’re telling your story.”
Don’t feel like just because you only have one or two stores you don’t have a voice. You do.”
Durand’s second key to being an advocate for the industry is to do your homework on the issues but don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
“It’s important to know the general background on an issue,” he said. “But if you catch a question from a staffer that you maybe weren’t expecting or forgot the answer, that’s OK. Just say that and promise to get back to them.”
Durand added that not knowing all the ins and outs of an issue can actually be a way to stay top of mind with the legislator: “It gives you a great excuse to follow up and keep the conversation going.”
His third key is understanding your coalition and your opponents because industry issues “don’t operate in a vacuum.”
“It’s important to appreciate that context and understand that there are other perspectives out there,” Durand said. “It can help with identifying and building a coalition of supporters across different industries or different interest groups, which can make your issue much harder to ignore.”
How to Advocate for the Industry
There are myriad ways to be an industry advocate, Hardin explained, from a simple social media post to attending NACS Day on the Hill in Washington. For Steve McKinley, CEO and founder of Urban Value Corner Store, which has multiple locations in and around Dallas, volunteering is at the heart of being an industry advocate, and NACS Day on the Hill is how he feels that he has the most impact.
“[Day on the Hill] gives me an opportunity to interact with my peer group but, more importantly, really feel like I’m making a difference on the bigger picture,” McKinley said.
NACS Day on the Hill allows convenience store retailers to meet with their congressional leaders and tell them directly how the policies they vote on can affect their businesses. NACS schedules the meetings and guides retailers through the issues and meeting process.
“You can’t really beat that face-to-face interaction,” Hardin said. “We need as many voices as possible because we’re advocating for major issues that have a huge impact on our industry.”
Another way retailers can interact with their regulators is through the NACS In Store program, which gives elected officials the opportunity to experience how convenience stores serve the public in their home districts. During the event, a Member of Congress works behind the counter and interacts with members of the local community. McKinley recently hosted one of his legislators, Congressman Keith Self, at one of his locations.
McKinley said, “It gave me about 20 or 30 minutes of one-on-one time with Congressman Self, and it’s different when it’s in your setting versus on Capitol Hill. You have [their] attention. … I really felt that he was sincere in the interaction and gave me an opportunity to voice [my concerns].”
EG America also uses the program and has hosted Members of Congress several times in its stores.
Durand said, “Sitting in an office and talking in the abstract is one thing, but being able to actually walk through the store and point out the underground storage tank system or point out the fresh foods … that we’re talking about when we say we have an issue with SNAP, being able to draw that connection right there in the store is powerful.”
Durand also said that visiting Members of Congress when they are in their district office is an “underappreciated” opportunity to advocate for the industry.
“Often, it’s a lot easier to have a productive conversation back home when you’re outside the craziness and distraction of the D.C. bubble,” he said. “If we have a particular issue or we have a Member of Congress where we have stores in their district … having those meetings outside D.C. can be a great way to supplement the conversation.”
Advocating for the industry isn’t limited to the federal level. Doug Yawberry, president at Weigel’s, based in Powell, Tennessee, with 79 locations, said the company is heavily engaged with local and state elected officials.
“We are very much engaged, and not engaged just when we need something, but we’re engaged … on a regular basis,” he said. “There’s enough of a relationship there that [we] can pick up the phone and call one of them and have … a very easy conversation.”
Weigel’s is also a member of the Tennessee Fuel Marketers Association and is “very much involved” in that group, Yawberry said.
“Once you step in and you get involved in some of those functions … you understand that you can have a voice and you can help the voice of the industry,” he said.
You can bring to the table the unique story of your business, the impact you have on the community and the impact an issue has on you.”
Durand also encourages attending industry events, including the NACS Show, not only to meet and network with other colleagues in the industry but also to learn.
“I’m never going to be an expert in any one issue in our business,” he said. “But understanding all the issues, from labor to technology to the grocery business to fuel, [and] opportunities like the NACS Show and other industry events to see what’s new and what’s going on in those areas makes me a better advocate.”
Social media is an easy way to advocate for the industry, according to Hardin. It’s as simple as posting and tagging a Member of Congress.
“A lot of folks might not think that it’s effective, but staffers track these engagements,” she said. “If you get enough people tweeting or posting and commenting on Facebook, it can make a difference.”
McKinley said he often leverages LinkedIn to promote awareness of an industry issue, posting to his personal account.
“It’s really getting people exposed to [issues] and talking about [them],” he said. “It’s about being vocal where I find opportunities to do that and then educate people within and outside the industry.”
Where to Start?
There are multiple opportunities for you to use your voice for the industry, so where should you start and how do you take the first step? Durand recommends starting by leveraging industry groups.
“[Retailers] should definitely put that at the top of their list because whether it’s state associations or a federal association like NACS, [associations] have staff whose job it is to help,” he said. “They really have that infrastructure in place to help you be an advocate without you having to take that on all by yourself and start from scratch.”
McKinley encouraged retailers who are taking their first step into advocacy to be inquisitive, volunteer, build a network of industry colleagues and be a resource.
“Don’t feel like just because you only have one or two stores you don’t have a voice. You do. And that voice is very, very important in the big scheme of things,” he said. “For single-store operators, two-store operators, if they’re looking for a way [to] make a bigger impact, I can’t think of another industry, another association, that’s going to provide a better road map.”
According to Yawberry, the first step to being an industry advocate is just getting started.
“Once I jumped in, I was hooked, because I felt valuable and my voice was heard,” he said. “The first step is the hardest step. It’s taking the courage and the time … but once you do that, it all just falls in place.”