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Words that Work

by Peter Schrappen

There are few better books out there on lobbying and advocacy than Dr. Frank Luntz’s Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. It’s true. This mindset has saved me all along my career and shown itself to be true once again during the recent effort to improve language around the copper-bottom-paint ban.

To refresh your memory, the current ban on copper paint for recreational boats in Washington starts on January 1, 2021. You’re correct: That is right around the corner. To give boaters and the state’s $7 billion industry a path forward, the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA) and a cobbled-together coalition, which includes the Recreational Boating Association of Washington (RBAW), have led the charge with the simple message “No ban (on copper paint) without a plan.”

And guess what? Our message resonated with the right lawmakers. It was the words “Why are we banning a product with a safer alternative in place” that carried the day. (While it’s too early to say the bill is as good as passed, it does appear to have the elements of successful legislation.) If you remember last month’s “On Watch”, the two fundamentals to any successful legislative win are 100% about consensus wrapped around a priority. Both pieces are present here in equal parts.

Getting back to words that work, there are some words that simply do not work in Olympia. Words like “campaign”, “contributions”, “quid pro quo”, and “politics” do not sit well with lawmakers. On the boating front, common words like “yachts” or “superyachts” are no-nos. Other words used sometimes make me wonder, “Um, who told you that was a good word choice?” Once in a while, you’ll hear “Don’t they realize that they (elected officials) work for me?” or the ever-popular “I’m a taxpayer.” If you put yourself in the shoes of the decision-maker, what you are saying is in line with a threat.

Thinking about this issue, I’d increase my chance of failure if I used the words “yacht” (for example: “boat paint for yachts and superyachts”). Legislators do not sympathize with the plight of the yachtsman. They just don’t. That said, they do care about marine trades and not wanting to get calls from angry boaters and anglers.
As this bill wound its way through the legislative process (think of a game of Chutes and Ladders), many of the same truisms of using the precise right terms to frame our winning frame have played out perfectly, too. The committee hearings were pretty much pro forma. The lion’s share of the work was done in legislative offices and hallways. Texting and weekend conference calls with the NMTA-led coalition to ensure we were on the same page added to our momentum.
Frank Luntz's book Words That Work

Again, none of this would have amounted to a hill of beans, however, if real-life legislative champions were not present. Thankfully, we had the right people at the helm from both parties and who were on the right committees, had the right committee assignments and stature, the right amount of boating interests in their districts, and the pre-existing relationships with yours truly to take up the struggle to convince the other side that a ban in 2021 was problematic.

As this column goes to press, an agreement is in place with the industry (a word that I believe does not work, how about “marine trades”?), the environmentalists, and the Department of Ecology. Keep in mind that it’s always easier to not do something than to do something in Olympia. Put another way: It’s easy to kill bills in Olympia when there is no consensus. Now that we have consensus with a myriad of concerned “stakeholders” (an overused word), the barrier of success is reduced ten-fold. Lawmakers loathe inserting themselves in the middle of two (or three) important groups that are not on the same page.

The path to victory is agreed-upon language. Playing this out, the ban on copper-bottom paint is lifted unless alternatives are “feasible, reasonable, and readily available” by June, 2024. Voila!

As with all the other issues that fill my day, this bill’s passage (knocking on a fake wood desk) does not mean my work is done. Just as I have chipped away at this issue since 2011, the onus on us (interested boaters and marine trades) shifts to participating in the 2024 report required in this bill that will look at the different alternatives.

The more pro-active evidence I can provide, the more we can frame the outcome. It really is that simple at the core and that important. It’s all about using the right language at the right time with the right intent. That’s what really works!

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