Playing Your Part – Contacting and Meeting with Policymakers
Don’t be discouraged by the fact that members of Congress and state legislators are inundated by messages and requests for meetings. The staff members in legislators’ offices are set up to handle massive quantities of email, calls, social media messages, and letters. Each communication is reviewed by staff to determine how to respond and how to count it in terms of their office tally on the issue.
And while the messages get counted, a qualitative difference in messages is also taken into account. The more a communication seems to be the product of an individual, and less that of a mass campaign, the more likely the member of Congress is to see it and make special note of it. While it’s important to do whatever you can, given the time you have available, keep in mind that Congressional staff rank effectiveness as follows, from most effective to least:
- Personal call or meeting with the legislator: If someone in your network/coalition knows the legislator, you can ask the scheduler to add this person to the legislator’s list of supporters whose calls he/she will return during a set “call time” each day. You don’t need to know the legislator personally to request a meeting.
- Coalition letter signed by a few prominent local organizations: Once you’ve sent the letter by email to the office, be sure to send it directly to the staff contact responsible for the issue you are addressing. You can also link to the letter on your social media channel and link to the policymaker’s account.
- Social media messages from local people on the same day in response to a legislator’s post: A survey of Congressional staff found that as few as 30 social media comments were effective to get a lawmaker’s attention on a given topic.
- Personal e-mails to staff with whom you have built relationships or met recently in D.C. or the district office, with an eye-catching, or at least clear, subject line: Each day, Congressional staff receive several hundred e-mails. If there is a vote coming up and it will harm the orchestra, your subject line could read: “Board member from ABC Philharmonic Orchestra urges Rep. XYZ to vote no on today’s vote to cut NEA funding.”
- Letters on business letterhead: Letters from local businesses and organizations e-mailed to the right staff member also get noticed. If members of your board or coalition partners are also business owners, encourage them to speak up in that capacity. The letter could be attached to an e-mail with this subject line, “ABC Corporation (employing more than 1,000 residents of Anytown, USA) urges Rep. XYZ to vote no on today’s vote to cut NEA funding.”
- General e-mails sent through the office’s main website account are fine but may go to spam. Send to individuals as much as possible.
- Scripted calls to the main office line and form letters/postcards to offices are among the least effective communications, unless they are received by the office at an extraordinarily high volume. Physical mail goes through security and is often delayed. Some offices just count the number of calls they receive but don’t take your information.
- Petitions. Please, please know the limits of petitions. Elected officials dismiss messages that aren’t confirmed to come from their own constituents. With rare exceptions, the primary purpose of petitions is for the organization to collect your contact information for future use. Sign them if you will, but know that your job as an advocate is not done by doing so!