By Marty Block and Chris Micheli
There are several suggestions for ensuring successful communications with elected officials that constituents, interest groups and even experienced lobbyists should keep in mind. We offer a few tips for communicating with elected officials, whether writing (by letter or email), telephoning or making an in-person visit at the State Capitol or district office.
Writing to Elected Officials
The obvious first point is to address a letter properly, including the correct spelling of the elected official’s name, his or her proper title, and the correct address so that it arrives at the right place. All contact information is available online or you can telephone the elected official’s office.
Include your name and address. An anonymous letter will be ignored. More importantly, you will be asking the elected official to respond to your written correspondence and he or she will only be able to do so if you include a return address. This also allows the elected official to ensure that you are a constituent.
Rather than putting your name on a form letter, you are more likely to be successful in arguing your perspective if you write a letter using your own words and explaining the impact of proposed legislation from your personal perspective. Signing a petition has limited impact as well. You may just get a form reply if you send a form letter. Personalize your letter and, hopefully, you will get a personalized response from the elected official.
Make sure that you communicate with the elected official early in the process so that your letter can have a meaningful impact. In other words, if your letter arrives after the elected official already voted on the bill, then it will not have any impact. You want to ensure that there is sufficient time for the elected official to take effective action.
Make sure that you identify the bill or issue that you are writing about in the beginning of the letter. That allows the letter to be properly routed to the right staff person so that it is read and responded to in an efficient manner.
Of course, it is important to give reasons for the opinion you hold on a bill or issue. Your letter should thoroughly state your position and the rationale for it, but be brief and positive. Negative comments or personalized criticisms are not productive and will not assist your lobbying efforts.
Telephoning Elected Officials
When making your first telephone call to an elected official, you should not expect to talk directly with the elected official, but more likely with a staff person. You should be prepared to give your name and address to the staff member who answers your phone call. This allows them to ensure that you are a constituent and to provide a written response to you if necessary or appropriate. This information is passed along to the elected official.
You should limit your phone call to one bill or one issue, rather than go on a “rant” about many bills or issues. The phone call should be short and concise. It should also be timely. In other words, if a bill is going to be voted upon on Thursday, a timely call is one that is made the prior week or early the week of the vote, rather than the day of the actual vote.
Thank the elected official or the staff person for any response provided. If there is not an immediate response, then ask for a written response to your position.
Meeting with Elected Officials
When planning to meet with an elected official, it is important to schedule a meeting in advance, whether in the Capitol office or the district office. You should call ahead and make an appointment, rather than showing up at the office expecting to meet.
When scheduling the appointment, expect a short visit, usually lasting no more than 15 minutes. Be specific in your request (i.e., specify the bill number, author and topic) including your position and why you want to meet with the elected official. Identify all the individuals who will be in the meeting with the elected officials and the organizations that they represent.
Prepare for your meeting by knowing the elected official’s background and likely stance on the legislation or issue, what questions might be raised, what the other side is saying about the issue or bill, and your key arguments.
Meeting with staff is very valuable if you cannot meet directly with the elected official. You should provide the same information and make the same arguments with the staff member as you would the elected official.
Be sure to bring a “leave behind” for the elected official and his or her staff that has an explanation of the legislation or policy issue and your arguments that support your position. Any studies, articles or other supporting materials are also valuable for elected officials and their staff members.
The following are Marty’s “eight suggestions for a successful Sacramento visit” to legislators, but this advice is the same for meeting with local or federal officials:
- Google the legislator you will be visiting.
- Open strong.
- Make brief and relevant introductions.
- Build rapport.
- Don’t bury the lead.
- Explain why your desired outcome is important to the member.
- Be nice to staff.
- Don’t feel bad if you “just get staff.”
- Unless you know otherwise, assume the member knows little about your issue.
- You will usually be right.
- Ask the member questions and listen to the answer.
- Anticipate and plan for objections.
- Close strong.
- What specific action do you want?
- “Can we count on your vote?” “Will you sign on to our letter?”
- Leave a written summary.
- One page, clear and concise, and very readable…with large fonts and lots of white space.
There are many other suggestions that can be made when lobbying elected officials, but these are the main ones that individuals and groups should utilize for maximize success in their lobbying efforts.
Marty Block served in both the California State Senate and State Assembly and was a Professor at San Diego State University. Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc.