The No No-Way: How to Win with Bureaucracy

There’s a fine art to getting a “yes” from a government regulator — and you too can do it, if you follow the principles and guidelines given in this article.

Any promoter of licensed beverages must skillfully balance outrageous creativity with an awareness of law. Because the best and freshest marketing ideas often defy neat categorization under the rules, successful marketers spend a good deal of time tiptoeing through legal minefields.

I am often asked to court the government on behalf of marketers with new ideas. I generally succeed. Let me share with you the secrets of diplomacy that I use in my work. These principles can help any business get more wins dealing with government.

Dueling Objectives

Accept the fundamentals first: The goals of marketing professionals and the goals of regulators differ. Marketers need to find ways to draw public attention to their products. Regulators must ensure that not too much attention—or the wrong kind of attention—is generated. The regulator worries about the precedents a new marketing scheme may set, and has to second guess what objections could be raised by the public, by elected officials, and by agency superiors. That’s why in government there will always be a tendency to play it safe: “When in doubt, rule out.”

Avoiding the Immediate No

If all your ideas fall well within established rules and precedents, they may be lacking in imagination! Creative schemes often flirt with rejection. But when you bring your ideas to an authority, you can and should present them in such a way as to prevent that immediate “No,” which can be hard to reverse. You need to explain the legal merits of your idea before the regulator forms an unfavorable first impression.

For the most part, marketers and law books don’t mix. Law can be dry as crackers, and just as hard to swallow. So there’s a strong tendency to skip the legal research, and to expect the regulator to do it for you. Be realistic: in these days of budgetary cutbacks, the regulatory offices are struggling with too much work and too few workers. They just don’t have the time to do your homework for you.

And even if the regulators had the time for research, what’s in it for them? They’re not motivated to find a new loophole or set a new precedent. If you want them to go out on a limb for you, you’ve got to support the limb first.

You are much better off if you do your own homework—better yet, delegate to a knowledgeable person within your company. Or hire a specialist do it for you. There are times when consulting with an expert can keep you from running very far down a dead end street. A small fee can save you thousands of dollars and costly embarrassment. It’s cheap insurance.

So often a well-researched proposal will get a “Yes” or a “Maybe” when the exact same proposal, if presented without benefit of research, would meet a flat-out “No.” Even if it is not conclusive, a cogent bit of research creates credibility and respect.

The Fertile Fields of Maybe

Dialogue is a civilized activity unique to homo sapiens. Make use of it. In the polite company where well-researched proposals are reviewed, few ideas are accepted or rejected out of hand; rather, in a process like negotiation, a proposal may be whittled and revised and beaten into a form acceptable to both sides. But in order to enter that context, you must be prepared with some food for thought, some precedents, some laws and interpretations of law.

Apart from research, here are a few other principles that help turn a potential “No” into a “Maybe” and then a “Yes.”

Use anonymity wisely. Anonymity is the world’s most effective protection from everything except social diseases! By maintaining anonymity, you can test the waters, get feedback, and apply the feedback to modify your ideas before you take credit for them.

Often it’s best to use an intermediary for this purpose. The effort to ask your question without revealing too many details about it or your identity can make you seem nervous, cagey, even dishonest—not the best context for your precious idea. For the optimum context, select an intermediary who has a friendly, comfortable approach to the regulators.

Consider a matchmaker. The officer who reviews your idea is, in many cases, a one-man judge and jury. Don’t inadvertently send your best and brightest idea to the hanging judge. Uniformity in the application of law is a goal towards which all regulatory agents strive. However, difficulty in interpretation of gray areas and differences in experience and perspective from one person to another create an inevitable variation in judgment.

A person who deals constantly with government officials is in an excellent position to help steer your proposal to someone most likely to give it open-minded appraisal.

Be prepared to compromise. All too often, people approach government agencies with too much invested in the idea already. In any negotiation, it helps to have at least one fall-back position. If you are flexible, you are best prepared to nail down any advantage you might be offered. The race goes to those whose creativity includes flexibility as well as innovative thinking.

A colleague of mine once said, “I don’t mind that my goal is difficult. Difficulty makes the goal more valuable. Anything that’s too easy can be done by everyone.” If you play the game like a pro—or get the help of one—it’s possible to play by the rules, and still win.