How to Get Through to Congress
By Alicia McBride on 05/16/2011 @ 11:30 PM
What goes through your mind when FCNL, or another group, asks you to Take Action and Contact Congress Now?
As the person who writes many of our calls to action, I of course hope that you immediately start composing your email message and send it over to your representative or senators. But, before you spend 5, 10, or even more minutes of your life writing that impassioned note, do you ever have a moment of doubt? Do you wonder if that email really gets through to a human being, and whether it will actually lead your member of Congress to act differently?
There are several more videos, covering topics such as how congressional staff get their news (answer: everywhere) and how Congress uses Twitter. I highly recommend them if you want to understand your audience better when you're lobbying your members of Congress from a distance.
These videos, put together by The Partnership for a More Perfect Union, are part of a series of research projects begun by the Congressional Management Foundation that question members, staff, and citizen lobbyists about what influence constituent communications have on Capitol Hill. Last week I sat in on an explanation of the latest survey results and heard some surprising, and some reassuring, results.
It's Still All About You
According to congressional staff, personal contact with a constituent is still far and away the best way to influence a member who hasn't yet decided on an issue. That can be a lobby visit, but it can also be a personal letter or email message. The key word here is "personal." Just clicking "send" on a form letter isn't the same thing. It still may have influence, but it's not nearly as much as the personal version of the same letter.
So what makes for a "personal" message that might be influential? Here are the percentages of staff who said the following would be "helpful" or "very helpful" to include in the message.
- Impact of the bill on the district: 77%
- Constituent reasoning: 74%
- A personal story: 48%
It's Also All About Trust
The volume of communication directed at Congress continues to balloon. Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation estimated that volume has increased between 300 and 600% in the past 8 years -- meanwhile, the size of congressional staffs have stayed the same in that time period.
A lot of this volume is driven by organizations, like FCNL, encouraging people to use their tools to contact Congress. The power of email, and now Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, lets people get the word out very quickly and makes sending that message to Congress relatively painless.
All of this ease, however, has bred some cynicism. In the latest Partnership survey, only 35% of congressional staff agreed that advocacy campaigns are good for democracy, and more than half (53%) agreed that most advocacy campaigns with identical form messages are sent without constituent knowledge or approval. There are enough of these campaigns out there - or the ones that were out there were so memorable that they've entered office lore - that many staff are still distrustful when they see the same message over and over again in their members' inbox.
What does this all mean for you, the person sitting in your living room wondering if your email message makes a difference? It means you should be looking at that message from the point of view of the person receiving it. Will they see it as just one more form letter, or will they be able to tell that you, a real person in their state or district, with real concerns about a piece of legislation, has just sent them a personal communication about that concern?
This doesn't mean you have to disregard the entire sample letter that FCNL offers you, but it does mean that you should think carefully about which pieces of that letter you want to use and how you can put enough of your self in the letter so it's credible.
Another way to build trust with your member and his or her staff is to meet them in person. It may sound daunting to jump from sending email to scheduling a lobby visit, but I can speak from personal experience that it's entirely doable - maybe with a little help from your friends. Once you've climbed a little higher on that ladder of engagement, your influence can be that much greater.
Do you have a question about communicating with Congress? Leave a comment below - the next issue of our newsletter will focus on how to be a more effective grassroots lobbyist, so you may see some of your questions answered! (If you don't already get the newsletter, you can subscribe to receive it either online or by U.S. mail.)