Tips on Communicating Effectively with Elected Officials
Legislative advocacy can be of crucial importance to you and your organization’s mission and goals. Remember the following general tips to enhance the effectiveness of your legislative communications!
- Learn the territory. Educate yourself about the legislative process and legislative players to improve your ability to influence legislation. Be sure to understand significant dates, committees, and opportunities for input. There are many steps to the legislative process — you must be prepared to be there to support your cause at each one.
- Anything with a personal touch is considered among the most effective tactics because it demonstrates a constituent’s commitment to an issue and a willingness to do something about it.
- Limit your message to one subject and identify clearly the subject you’re interested in.
- Be brief – one page or less is best. Include pertinent information only. Short sentences are easier to read and understand. Edit, edit, edit!
If you are writing a letter:
- Write on your personal or business letterhead, if possible, and sign your name at the end of your message. Type or write legibly!
- Be sure your exact return address is on the letter, not just on the envelope. Envelopes sometimes get thrown away before the letter is answered.
- State your personal reason for writing. Your own experience is your best supporting evidence. Give facts and illustrations. Explain how the issue would affect you or your family, your business or profession, or what effect it would have on your state or community. If you can, anticipate the opposition’s arguments and develop appropriate responses in advance.
- Use your own words. Avoid stereotypical phrases or sentences that give the appearance of “form” letters, which tend to identify your message as part of an organized pressure campaign and produce little impact.
- Your attitude is important. Be calm, reasonable and constructive. Stick to the facts — if your letter exaggerates or seems overly emotional your point may be lost. Describe the best approach if you oppose the bill. Don’t ask for the impossible. Don’t ever threaten or be offensive. Hostility will only hurt your cause next time you want your legislator’s ear.
- State specifically what you want the elected official to do – support, oppose, draft a new approach, etc.
- Don’t pretend to wield vast political influence. Write as a constituent, not as a self-appointed spokesperson for your neighborhood, community or industry. If you really are a spokesperson for a group, however, be sure to mention it.
- Save your efforts for a few issues that are really important to you. Don’t become a pen pal. Messages from seemingly tireless writers begin to lose impact.
- Ask your legislator to state his or her position on the issue in reply. As a constituent, you’re entitled to know.
- Strongly consider the factor of timing. Try to write your position on a bill early, while it is still in committee or subcommittee. Your senators and representatives can usually be more responsive to your appeal at that time, rather than later on when the bill has already been approved by a committee or your legislator has already taken a position.
- Thank your legislator if he or she pleases you with a vote on an issue. Everybody appreciates a complimentary letter – and remembers it. On the other hand, if a vote is contrary to your position, don’t hesitate to let him or her know. That will be remembered, too.
If you are telephoning:
- Do not expect to speak directly to your elected official. Your message will still get through if you talk to a staff member. Be sure to tell the staff member if you are a voting constituent.
- Consider writing down your comments ahead of time to help you remain focused.
If you are visiting in person:
- Try to establish personal relationships with your own representative and senator. In general, you will have more influence as a constituent.
- Elected officials have busy schedules, so call to schedule an appointment as far in advance as possible. Be sure to indicate the subject(s) you want to discuss so the official can be prepared for the meeting.
- Remember that U.S. congressmen have local district offices in their home states. You may be more likely to get a personal meeting scheduled with your representative through this office.
- Time is valuable to you and to legislators. Do not expect more than 15 minutes of legislator or staff time – that means be prepared to get right to the point! Arrive on time and leave when your allotted time is up. Because schedules constantly change, you may wish to call and reconfirm your appointment. Do not be surprised or disappointed if your meeting is cut short or you must meet with a staff member.
- Be organized and be prepared. Rehearse beforehand and have a mental agenda. You are creating an image to the legislator about you and your cause — it is critical that you convey seriousness, a good working knowledge of the issue, and a thoughtful justification for your position.
- Do not lecture. Do not present lots of statistics – the legislator won’t remember them.
- Bring your friends to the meeting. They can help support your arguments and calm your nerves. Just be sure to select a primary spokesperson ahead of time.
- Be a good listener. The legislator’s comments and questions provide insight and strategy for follow-up materials or meetings.
- Leave a one-page (or less) fact sheet offering a concise summary of the issue and your proposed solution. Let the legislator know how you intend to follow up. After the meeting, send a thank-you note.
- Offer to host legislators for site visits, demonstrating firsthand how legislation may affect your cause. Don’t be discouraged if your first invitation to a legislator is turned down. Try again later.
If you are testifying before a committee:
Testifying before committees is another important way to inform legislators about your views on legislative issues.
- Call the committee secretary in advance to sign up to testify. Be sure to ask the secretary how many copies of your testimony you need to provide. Bring several extra copies for the media and others supporting your position.
- Prepare written remarks to give to the committee. Keep it brief (1-2 pages, preferably double-spaced.) Keep your thoughts organized and simple — avoid jargon or acronyms, and don’t overstate your case. State your personal reason for testifying. Your own experiences are your best supporting evidence. Give facts and illustrations. Explain how the issue would affect you or your family, your business or profession, or what effect it would have on your state or community. Attach any supporting information. Make sure everything is accurate.
- Oral testimony in front of the committee is intended to allow you to summarize briefly your written remarks. Do not simply read your written testimony word-for-word – highlight the main points you want to convey and bring up any details not included. Rehearse beforehand – if you are nervous, it will help you feel more relaxed and prepared.
- Watch your time – try not to take more than a few minutes. If there are several conferees waiting to testify or you are taking too much time, do not be surprised if your time is cut short by the committee chairman.
- Again, attitude is important. Be calm, reasonable and constructive. Stick to the facts – if you exaggerate or seem overly emotional your point may be lost. Describe the best approach if you oppose the bill. Don’t ask for the impossible. State specifically what you want the committee to do – support, oppose, draft a new approach, etc.
- At the conclusion of your testimony, thank the committee for its time and offer to answer questions. Legislators’ questions will help you identify any follow-up that is needed as well as reveal strengths and weaknesses of your proposal. Keep your composure and answer to the best of your ability — if you do not know something, then that is your answer.
- Even if you are not available to testify in person, consider opting to submit at least written testimony. Written remarks still present legislators with your perspective and often reinforce other testimony favorable to your cause.
Use the media
- Writing letters to the editor or guest columns can be an effective tool.
- Keep your letter brief. Many newspapers will not consider letters longer than 200-300 words. Type your letter if you can; many editors won’t read letters that are not typed.
- State your views quickly and in an organized way, using a simple, conversational tone. Avoid jargon. Don’t preach or ramble. You’ll often be writing in response to a news story or editorial, so you probably won’t need to give many background details. Be sure to include your full name, address and telephone number – anonymous letters generally are not published.
- Don’t get discouraged if your letter or column is not printed the first time. Editors receive countless submissions, and they simply don’t have room to print them all.
- If your material is printed, consider sending the newspaper clipping to your elected officials to show them that your views are getting public attention.
Lastly, review your advocacy work so you can improve your efforts in the future. Study which strategies were effective and which should be modified or eliminated.
Now good luck with YOUR legislative issue! Should you have questions or feedback, please contact Ashley Sherard at (913) 888-1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.