It is critical that your communication, whether it is an introduction to your organization or regarding a particular issue, is effective. If possible, contacts to elected officials should come from members of your organization (and your coalition partners, families, etc.) who are constituents of the targeted elected officials. Elected officials’ friends and professional associates are also very effective contacts.
Who Should Attend Meetings
One of the first things you’ll think about is who ought to attend meetings with legislators. Generally, you won’t want to have more than about four members of your organization to attend or you’ll risk overwhelming the elected official. For grassroots organizations, try to have the president, chair of the legislative committee and one other person who has a personal or professional relationship with the elected official attend the meetings. If your organization has an executive director and/or lobbyist, one of them (but probably not both) should also attend.
Introducing your Organization
If your organization’s governmental affairs program is brand new, start by introducing your organization to elected officials and educating them about your industry and issues. If possible set up individual meetings with key elected officials in your area to introduce yourselves. These meetings should serve two purposes; you are simultaneously letting the elected officials know you exist and positioning your organization as a resource on issues that affect your organization. These meeting should be accomplished outside the legislative session if you’re dealing with state legislators because they’re far too busy during the session to spend a great deal of time learning about an industry. Be prepared with the following information for these meetings:
- A brochure or other information about your organization, who you serve, and what your industry does
- Brief information about public policy issues your organization is interested in
- Information about how your organization and members can be resources
- Contact information for the appropriate member(s) of your organization
Discussing your Legislative Package or Issue
If your organization is already involved in the legislative process, you can skip the introduction unless you know the elected official is unfamiliar with your organization. Your focus here is on your legislative agenda or a particular item your organization is interested in. Be prepared.
- Be clear and concise about what you’re asking for
- Document the reason why you are seeking what you are seeking
- Build a plausible and honest case for your particular legislative item or package
- Anticipate and be prepared to answer difficult questions that you might expect your opponents to ask
- If you can’t answer a question during the meeting, find the answer later and follow-up with the elected official
- Leave a concise (no more than one page) overview of your issue and position with the official
- Reiterate that your organization is a resource for the elected official
E-mails, Letters, and Phone Calls
Contrary to popular belief, e-mail, letter and phone contacts do matter to elected officials, and more legislators than not keep track of these contacts. These tools are some of the most important and powerful for an organization depending solely on volunteers to accomplish their legislative goals. Members are more likely to send an e-mail, pick up the phone or write a letter than they are to attend a day on the hill or a meeting with a legislator. These simply take less time out of their day.
When using e-mail, letters and phone calls, one rule stands above all others: Make sure all of your member contacts deliver the same message.
The second rule is that all of your member contacts should be unique to the individual member. This means you should not, for any reason, use form letters or telephone scripts. Prepare your members so that they understand the issue at hand and the message, but let them deliver the message in their own way within the bounds of decency and professionalism, of course. Form letters make your contacts look like part of a poorly orchestrated campaign and are less likely to be taken seriously than unique communications.
The last rule is that your communications, just like with face-to-face meetings, should be brief. Letters and e-mail should be no more than one page, and phone calls (unless they are from someone who knows the legislator personally or professionally) should convey the simple message that the caller supports or opposes a particular ordinance, bill, or concept.