How to Communicate with Your Elected Representative- Effectively

Posted on February 13, 2014

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Everyone once and awhile someone tries to pass an asinine law, like sell all of the Smithsonian’s collections to help pay for vacations for do nothing legislators. Sometimes it is not as heart grabbing and might be as simple as budget freezes or the laying off of your local heritage officer. Usually, this is followed by someone, or someones if they are a group, sending out messages on Twitter, email lists, blog posts, etc. with a statement to the effect- please write your elected official and say blah blah. I should also mention that occasionally this is because they need to do something good e.g. vote for this bill to project our heritage.

The only problem with these call to actions is that almost no one has been trained how to contact their local representative.  At the very worst you are given a petition to sign or a template letter to send. The problem with these routes are that templates all get put into the same folder by staff i.e. emails from lobbyist X. They don’t actually get read- well one does get read and the rest just get added to the tally. Petitions are not bad per se but they need to have scale. 5,000 people in your city of 6,000 sign a petition that means something. 5,000 people out of the population of 310 million Americans signing a petition means jack shite.

Also, anyone can sign a petition for anything, and they do. One day, during my undergrad we found an empty table in our Student Union and started a petition to stop boots with the fur and apple bottom jeans. The song Apple Bottom Jeans by Tpain had just come out. Guess what? In two hours we got 600 signatures using notebook paper and a sign made with magic marker. Remember the petition to create a Death Star that the US Government had to respond to. Unless you have scale signing a petition is not likely to do much.

Having received some training on how to reach your representative recently I thought I would share what I learned.

Here is how to have the greatest impact and make your message heard:

If you talk to members of the staff for your representative you will find out that what has the greatest impact is personal communications. If you write a personal email, letter, or Tweet it will most likely get read. Moreover, if a bunch of personal letters come in they, the staff (who are the ones who will read it) take notice and it has a much bigger impact. To put it in perspective, during controversial bills most representatives can receive upwards of 10,000-20,000 emails a day. Most of it templates or auto created letters from websites and gets filed appropriately e.g the round file bin. However, if a few dozen (if your local government) or a few hundred (national) personal messages come in the staff takes notice, “holy cow, it is not just lobbyist but our actual people care about this. Even if there are only one or two messages that come in, if it is on a low lobbying subject, like most archaeology and heritage is, you bring attention to the topic and still might sway the vote i.e. how am I going to vote on this bill I know nothing about. Well, 5 people want me to vote yes and none against so yes it is.

Some general rules to follow:

  • don’t be rude or swear
  • don’t use threats (unless you want to spend time with the police)
  • don’t demand, ask them to vote a certain way
  • Only write your government representative. Emailing a MP in Wales when you live in Scotland means it won’t get read

Further, to that last point always identify yourself/that you are one of the people they represent. Your voice counts more if they think you vote for them.

Specific Advice for Methods:

Email or Letter- About two paragraphs long. It is not a term or academic paper. Start by introducing your self e.g. I am Tom Jones and you are my representative. Then talk about how the legislation affects you/why you care. You could also mention if you have professional experience or not. Make a brief argument as to why they should vote a certain way. Include one (only one) stat if you want. Thank them for their time. Do all of this in two paragraphs. Include your full address so they know they represent you

US only tip- for email subjects follow this format- Bill number- for or against- post code (full). So it might look like this SN59358-PRO-87124-2222. This is the insiders way of email subject line for the US. Don’t ask me why but if you ask staff they say this helps.

Phone- It should last maybe a min. or less. Identify who you are e.g. my name is and I live in your district. Mention the bill or subject and ask that they vote your way or considered X proposal. Then thank them, and unless they say something else, say good bye and hang up. Keep a calm voice and be kind.

Social Media- This depends at the platform but it should be quick like a phone call. An example on Twitter- @myrep can you vote yes on bill SN12294- your constituent.

Summary:

That is basically it. Keep it short and concise. The number one mistake most people make when writing an email or letter is to make it too long. Most staff spend 50%+ of their time simply answering phone calls and emails. They really don’t have the time to read pages upon pages of your opinions. But they will listen if it is hand written/typed and are concise.

So next time you are asked to write to save heritage or archaeology or whatever follow those simple rules.

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