Tips for Meeting Your Legislator
Plan your meeting. Decide whether you are going alone or with a group of constituents. If you go as a group, decide who is going to lead the meeting and what each person is going to contribute to the discussion. This will help eliminate awkward silence or repetitive messages and will ensure that you hit all the key points you want to cover. You will likely have only 15-20 minutes for your meeting, so plan accordingly.
Make an appointment…but don’t be surprised if it changes. Legislators often have last-minute hearings or committee meetings. Be flexible.
Know your audience. Do a little research about your legislator if you don’t know him or her. Once you’re in the door, begin by finding something personal that you have in common with the legislator. Engage in a little “small talk” to break the ice—but keep it brief. If at all possible, find out his or her position on the issues you’re focusing on.
Define your message. Tell your legislator that you are visiting to ask for his or her support for your issue. Plan two or three observations or arguments that get at the heart of your position.
Meet in your home district. Meetings in the home district are often less hurried than meetings at the Capitol, and they provide the “home turf” advantage. Find out when your legislator is in his or her home district and schedule your appointment then, or if your workplace illustrates your position, invite them to visit you. If that’s not possible, travel to the Capitol as an alternative.
Invite comments and questions. Engage your legislator in dialogue. Don’t worry if they ask you something you don’t know the answer to—simply tell them you don’t know, but that you’ll find out for them.
State only what you know. Don’t overstate your case, fudge the facts, or guess. It helps to provide your legislator with brief, written information for further reflection. Make sure it contains the local angle for your district, if at all possible.
Ask for a commitment. If you don’t ask your legislator for action, you won’t see any. If they decline, encourage them to think about it, and let them know you’ll keep in touch.
Follow up. Send a handwritten thank-you note to your legislator. Let them know that you appreciate their time. If you promised to get them additional information, provide it or let them know how and when they can expect to receive it.
Visit more than once. Over time, visit with your legislator to continue to discuss issues and make requests as you have them. Be sure to be a reliable source of information for them on your issue by delivering what you promise, avoiding overstatement, and communicating clearly.
Tips for Writing Your Legislator
Begin by stating that you are a constituent. If you voted for the legislator, let them know that as well. Make sure you write your return address on the envelope, so that the legislator’s office staff knows immediately that you are a constituent.
Personalize your letter. Research consistently shows that handwritten letters have the most impact. In making your case on the issue, use personal examples to further distinguish your letter.
Use the news. Watch for news stories in your local community that you can use to illustrate your point. Use a local news item as a springboard for your issue.
Local, local, local. Make a strong connection between the issue and your local community that the legislator represents. Again, use local examples that illustrate why your issue is important and why your position is a strong one.
If the legislator has supported your issues in the past, acknowledge this—but don’t take it for granted that the support will continue. Give reasons why the legislator should continue or intensify his or her support.
Show restraint. Keep your letter brief—one to one-and-a-half pages at the most. Persuade a like-minded friend, family member, or colleague to write a letter as well. Again, quantity is critical. Legislators pay attention to issues when they believe that many of their constituents care about that issue.
Follow up. In the letter, ask your legislator for a response. To get a better picture of your legislator’s position, consider following your letter with a phone call or visit. Report your letter. When you’re part of a grassroots lobbying effort, your participation is helpful only if the people mobilizing the effort know about it. Let WECA know you wrote the letter, and what you intend to do to follow up.
Communicate more than once. Again, quantity is as important, if not more important, than quality in grassroots advocacy. One letter will not gain influence. As you monitor the issue, communicate with the legislator through phone calls, additional letters, e-mail, or visits to ask for specific support or action as appropriate to the process.
Tips for Calling Your Legislator
Plan: Before you make the call, plan what you are going to say. Your phone call will be very brief, so keep your message simple and to-the-point. Take a moment to think about it—you might even want to make some notes—and you’ll find that your call goes more smoothly than if you were to call “off the cuff.” Know your request (for example, “Please support Senate Bill 5”) in as few words as possible.
Message: After identifying (and possibly writing down) your request, think about a key point or personal story that supports your position.
Call: Make the call. If your legislator is in your home district on specific days or on weekends, call them when they are in your home district. There is more time and less distraction, and your position as a constituent will be enhanced if you are talking on “home turf.”
Staff or Message: You may not be able to reach your legislator if you are calling his or her office during the legislative session. Be prepared to talk to one of the legislator’s staff or to leave a message instead. Make sure you get the staff person’s full name, and treat them with the same respect.
Constituent: Begin by stating that you are a constituent. Legislators are most responsive to the people who can keep them in office—their constituents. If you voted for the legislator, mention that as well.
Persuade: Get to the point. Following your plan, state the reason for the call. Try to get the legislator to state his or her position on the issue, and try to persuade them using the points you developed.
Thank: If the legislator agrees to support your issue, thank them. Regardless of their position, thank the legislator for his or her time. Let them know that you will be tracking the issue.
Recruit: Recruit a like-minded friend, family member, or colleague to make a call as well. Particularly with phone calls, quantity is critical. Legislators pay attention to issues when they believe that many of their constituents care about that issue.
Report: Report your call. When you’re part of a grassroots lobbying effort, your participation is helpful only if the people mobilizing the effort know about it. Let WECA know that you made the call, and report anything of importance that the legislator said.
Call Back: Call more than once. Quantity is as important, if not more important, than quality in grassroots advocacy, because a high number of calls indicates to a legislator that many people in their district care about an issue. As you monitor the issue, call back to ask for specific support or action as is appropriate to the process.
Tips for Emailing Your Legislator
Email has changed the way we communicate and in many ways has replaced other forms of communication, such as phone calls or handwritten letters. This technological tool is fast, cheap, and efficient. However, because it is a fast and relatively informal means of communication, many legislators view it as less credible than other methods. If you use email to communicate with your legislator, you should do so in the context of an ongoing relationship in which you use other methods as the foundation of your communication. To craft an email with impact, follow these steps:
In the subject line of the message, state that you are a constituent. Most legislators have their staff sort and respond to their email, and this strategy will increase the likelihood that your email is read.
State your request concisely. View your message as different from an electronic letter. Again, email is less formal and much more brief than traditional written communication. Craft your message accordingly—keep it tight and short.
Provide personal examples and local context. Use principles similar to those in letter-writing, but in a tighter format. It’s always best to personalize your message, instead of using generic email.
Pursuade a like-minded friend, family member, or colleague to send an email as well. Again, quantity is critical. Legislators pay attention when they believe that many of their constituents care about that issue.
Follow up. Again, because the impact of email varies widely from legislator to legislator, be sure that you are using other methods to communicate with your legislator as well. Follow your email with a phone call, handwritten letter or visit.
Communicate more than once. As with all other forms of communicating with your legislator, view your email as part of an ongoing relationship. Keep in touch and tuned into your legislator and his or her position on the issue.
Tips for Writing Printable Letters to the Editor
Letters to the editor can be powerful vehicles for influencing or inspiring public debate, making the case for your issue, or responding to related events. In addition, elected officials always read the opinion pages of their local paper, because it gives them an idea of what their constituents think. The trick is to write a letter that the editors find compelling enough to print. Use these tips to write a letter that is more likely to get printed.
Capitalize on the hot stories. Find ways to tie recent news stories in with your issue. Open your letter to a reference to the recent event, and then quickly build a logical bridge to your issue.
Keep it brief. Most Letters to the Editor should be under 250 words. Edit your letter aggressively.
Be clear. This may seem obvious, but a surprising number of letters that don’t get published just don’t make sense. Avoid jargon, use common vocabulary, and let a few friends or colleagues review the letter before you send it.
Use word cues to underscore your point. For instance, preface your major conclusion with “The important thing is …” If you have research that makes your case, preface the facts with “Research shows that …”
Don’t overlook neighborhood weeklies and smaller papers. Often these publications have more room for letters, and community papers have very large readerships.
Include a call to action or solution. If you are illustrating a need or making a case for a specific action, include a line about what people can do to help.
Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. If you or your organization are involved in work that addresses the issue, include that in your letter.
Be passionate, but not poisonous. There is a difference between “fire in the belly” and righteous indignation. Avoid sarcasm, and if you’re very angry, cool off a bit before sending a final version.
Use local or personal angles. All grassroots strategies rely on the “local” angles and the “personal” angles in an issue. Include this perspective to illustrate why readers should care about the issue.
Try meeting with editorial boards. The editorial boards on newspapers often meet with community members, and sometimes will write an editorial based on information they receive from these meetings. Ask for a meeting with your local paper’s editorial board, make a case for your issue, and ask them to support it with an editorial.