You’ve successfully activated your supporters to send emails, tweets, and Facebook messages to their elected officials. How do you ensure that messages to legislators have the biggest possible impact, and aren’t just glossed over in the slush pile? It’s all about knowing your audience.
Before Your Message Gets to the Legislator, it Goes Through Their Staff
When crafting a message for a lawmaker, you are actually writing for two different audiences—the legislator and their staff. The first person to lay eyes on your email will likely be a junior legislative staffer—someone in their early- to mid-twenties. My first job upon graduating college was as a Legislative Correspondent (LC) for my member of Congress. As an LC, I processed constituent correspondence and worked with legislative staff on responses. If you want your message to break through, you need to understand what LCs are looking for. Here’s how Legislative Correspondents evaluate incoming messages addressed to the legislator.
Is the letter writer a constituent?
If your advocates are contacting a member of Congress in their personal office (as opposed to their committee office) and they aren’t that member’s constituent, their words do not carry much weight. If they’re lucky, their correspondence might be passed to their own representative who may respond. When your advocates contact their own member of Congress, their words become much more valuable. Messages to legislators are only as valuable as the constituent they come from. When crafting a message to legislators, the first step is to make sure your advocates are writing to the legislator that represents their district or state. Otherwise, unfortunately, the message may sink to the bottom of the pile.
What general issue does this fall under?
Are your advocates writing about taxes, immigration, the environment, or healthcare? Legislative staffers tend to specialize in specific issues, so this information will help the junior staff determine which senior staff member is best-suited to draft a reply. The message your advocates send should clearly and promptly state the general issue they’re writing about. If the junior staff member has to dig to figure that out, the message is less likely to get into the right hands for due consideration.
What specific issue is this about?
If your organization supports or opposes specific legislation, be sure to include that legislation in the subject line and mention it within the first couple of sentences. The longer the buildup to getting to the point oft he message, the more work the staffer on the receiving end must do to decipher the real issue at hand. Oftentimes, constituents can take a while to get to their point in emails, phone calls, or social media. If your advocates send concise, clear messages, they’ll stand out and have a better chance of being dealt with promptly.
Best Practices for Writing and Tone
What kind of tone should your advocate use when writing to their legislator? It’s important to strike the right balance between informed, direct, and personal. A personal connection to the issue is always helpful. Explaining how Congressional action or inaction would directly an individual’s family or community carries a lot of weight. Beyond that, letter writers should convey that they have a general understanding of what they’re writing about. Informed messages to congressional offices reflect positively on the individual writer and the organization urging that constituent to contact their elected official.
Length is also important. There’s no need for your advocates to write essays, but it’s also helpful for them to write more than a single sentence. A short paragraph will usually suffice. Additionally, never underestimate the value of having your advocates thank their members of Congress (and their staff), recognizing the hard work they are doing to represent and respond to their constituents. Congressional offices receive thousands of correspondence each month and it’s rare that offices have the personnel to manage the increasing volume. The messages that convey empathy with offices and staff through their correspondence are like a breath of fresh air for overworked staff.
So, what doesn’t work? By all means, avoid using vitriolic, aggressive language when communicating with Congress. Members of Congress and their staff recognize that the legislative process can be painfully slow. Whatever happens, do not encourage your supporter to be rude or crass when they communicate with their elected officials. Encourage them to agitate without anger.
Quality is as Important as Quantity
If you’ve successfully motivated your supporters to reach out to their representatives, you’ve already won half the battle. But if you want to maximize the value of each message, don’t overlook the quality of the message. If you’re interested in learning about how you can guide your advocates to craft effective messages to their legislators, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re happy to share best practices on what we’ve learned from the field!
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