The CalUWild Guide to Effective Advocacy: How and to Whom
To be an effective advocate for your cause, you need to keep a few things in mind. The most important rule, no matter whom you are addressing or how, say what you need to in the fewest possible number of words. Lawmakers, their staffs, and editors are busy.
When dealing with decision-makers, there has long been a definite hierarchy of communication methods:
- Meetings with Legislators
- Letters to Legislators
- Phone calls
- Meetings with Newspaper Editors
- Letters to Newpapers & Other Periodicals
Since 2001, all mail to the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and some other federal agencies such as the Interior Department has been irradiated. Delay of up to three weeks were common. Many congressional office in Washington, DC told us that irradiation often rendered letters illegible (the paper crumbled when the envelope was opened, ink turned into goop, etc.) This changed the above scheme somewhat.
Recently, though, we have been told that things are better—delays are only a few days, and letters arrive in good condition. You might want to check with your individual office, regardless, to see which method they prefer. (It will give you an opportunity to introduce yourself, as well.)
Meetings remain the most effective way to communicate, but they are often not practical. The usefulness of faxes has possibly increased a bit. Phone calls are next in effectiveness. But email, in offices that have a good system for handling it, is quickly becoming the preferred method of communication. Again, check to be sure.
One fact remains: Correspondence that provides the recipient with no indication of thought on the part of the sender is relatively useless. Thus, pre-printed postcards are really only good for PR purposes (photos of sacks of mail are impressive).
Below is more specific information on meetings and letters to legislators and editors.
Meetings with Legislators
The most effective way to communicate with your legislators is in person. You can visit their offices in Washington, DC if you happen to be there (on vacation or for some other reason). Some advocacy groups also host trips to Washington to educate citizens about issues and then send them in teams to meet with congressional staffers. This is a great way to learn about issues in depth and get a chance to work with people who share your concerns. Begin attempting to schedule your meeting at least 2 weeks before you’ll be in Washington.
You simply phone the office and tell them you’d like to meet with the senator or representative. Most likely you will be given an appointment with a staff person, but the legislator may stop in to see you.
During congressional recesses (which aren’t meant as vacations) legislators are in their home states or districts listening to their constituents. You may be able to schedule a meeting with your representative during a recess.
Legislators often hold “town meetings” during recesses and on weekends. There are usually open microphones where people can address the lawmaker and the audience. They can’t easily dodge your question in front of so many constituents. You may also be able to talk to the legislator before or after the event.
No matter which avenue you choose, go prepared on your topic and write a followup letter thanking the persons you met with for their time (or the lawmaker for hosting the town meeting) and restating your message. Always ask them to respond to you, letting you know of their final action, and ask to be kept informed of further developments.
Tips for meetings:
- Always arrive on time, even preferably 5 minutes early.
- Dress appropriately; Washington, DC, is a relatively conservative place, and you want decision-makers to focus on your message, not your attire.
- Don’t be intimidated by the thought of meeting with legislators; they look to constituents for information and education on subjects. And it’s your responsibility as a citizen to let them know your views.
Letters to Legislators
Writing a personal letter is the next most effective form of advocacy. Legislative offices appreciate the time, thought, and effort that you take by writing and mailing a letter. The staffers also know that there are people who feel the same way as you do on an issue, but who don’t write. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take all that many letters to have an impact. Some congressional offices say that if they get 6 & 10 letters on a topic, it becomes an issue for them.
Letters don’t need to be lengthy, or literary masterpieces, but they should be clearly written. The critical things to include in any letter are, in order:
- What you want the legislator to do. Say this right at the outset;
- Why the issue is personally important to you;
- A request that the legislator let you know his or her action; and
- To be kept informed of further developments.
Always hand sign your letter, and always include your mailing address and a phone number. This allows the lawmaker to respond and also identifies you as a constituent.
That’s all there is to it!
Make sure your letters are personal (e.g., I go there to get away from the stresses of life; I grew up there; My folks have visited there, and I’d like to someday; I’d like my kids to visit there; I’m a wildlife photographer, and my business will be impacted; etc., etc.) Do not copy verbatim from sample letters or alerts you might receive. Your own words are most effective. Congressional staffers quickly recognize when the same letters start coming in, and those letters lose their impact.
That’s one reason why CalUWild generally does not provide sample letters. For letters to be effective, it is important that they show that the writer cares about the subject enough to be somewhat original. Of course, we are happy to answer any question you might have about a particular subject or letter you want to write.
One senator has made an interesting recommendation: state in every letter you write to a senator that that letter may be used for any legislative purpose. This is useful because senators sometimes engage in a filibuster (long periods of stalling by reading text into the Congressional Record) when they want to oppose a bill. However, they need text to read, sometimes interesting and relevant, sometimes not. Your letter could provide some of that text, if you give your permission. It saves them the time of having to call you back if it’s needed.
Again, fax your letter to the Washington, DC office or mail it to a local office of the legislator.
A couple of other general rules:
- Check spelling carefully.
- Read the letter out loud when you are finished to see how it sounds.
A letter shouldn’t take you much more than 10 or 15 minutes, once you get used to writing.
Fax a copy of your letter to Congress in Washington rather than mailing it. Faxes are becoming more useful given the mail situation in the Capitol. All the information above applies.
Phone calls are good for getting a quick message to a legislator, particularly when a vote is scheduled. Offices rarely take the time to respond in writing to phone calls, so don’t expect them to ask for your address. Some may ask for a zip code, to identify you as a constituent or for demographic purposes.
There has been an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of email. At first, many offices did not responded positively to email, partly because it was still a “new” technology, and also because it is relatively easy to send out. On the other hand, an orchestrated email campaign can swamp an office and show that many people are interested in a given topic.
A study published some time ago found that many Congressional offices are so overwhelmed with email that they simply ignored it all. Now many offices encourage it, and have pages on their websites where you can send an email or fill out a Webform. WHen using a Webform, you may be asked for your zip code, so the legislator knows you are a constituent. Congressional Rules prohibit legislators from answering communications from non-constituents. If you know that your legislator encourages email, by all means use it.
The mail security situation in Washington forced Congress to find better ways to deal with email. For the time being, however, we don’t recommend it in general, unless the legislator has a Webform. Regardless, a stamp on a hand-written envelope shows more concern on the writer’s part. Again, it’s a good idea to call the legislator’s office to check.
Include your name, address and phone number, so the legislator knows the message is coming from a constituent.
Meetings with Newspaper Editors
Every newspaper has an editorial board, usually the publisher and a group of editors and reporters, who set the editorial policy of the paper. One good advocacy tool is to arrange a meeting with this board to discuss the topic you’re interested in. The paper may write an editorial in support of your position, or it may assign a reporter to cover your issue.
Organize a group of 4 or 5 concerned citizens, perhaps including someone from an advocacy group. Go well-prepared to discuss your topic. If you don’t know a particular answer, offer to get the information (rather than making something up).
Find out who your local paper’s reporters are for the subject matter you are interested in. Get to know them. Call them up with information about stories you’d like them to cover. Don’t assume they know all about your subject; that’s not possible. They rely on you for information.
Letters to Newspapers & Other Periodicals
Letters to the editor follow the same basic rules as to legislators: state what you want, and what your personal interest in the subject is.
- Letters should be relatively brief (usually 250 words maximum, although different papers have different word limits. Check!)
- Letters should be clear, and should discuss one major point only.
- Always include your name, address, and daytime telephone number, regardless of whether you mail, fax, or email the letter, as the paper will probably want to check with you that you in fact wrote the letter.
- Use email if possible; that way the newspaper won’t have to retype your letter.
- You may wish to follow up with the paper to see whether they’ll print your letter.
Write even if there is no regular letters column. The editors need to know what readers think (and they may print your letter anyway).