How To Effectively Contact Your Representatives: Tips From a Former Senate Staffer

Michelle Station
December 11, 2015

On the subway this morning, I read an article about the impending doctor shortage. The author implored readers to contact their congressional representatives about this issue. They even included a handy pre-written email people could sign their name to and submit to their congressional representatives. To borrow a phrase from President Obama, “Let me be clear,” this will have little to no impact. 

I’ve been on both sides of the table here: In 2008-2009, I lobbied for African peace initiatives and a foreign relations bill that eventually became law. Then from 2011-2014, I worked for the Senate on-and-off, beginning as an intern in undergrad and eventually becoming a legislative staffer post grad.

While contacting your representatives is a great thing to do, many people go about it wrong and their voice gets lost in the crowd. Here’s how to avoid that. 

1. Be nice and don’t treat whomever you’re speaking with like they’re an idiot.

  • The interns and Staff Assistants who answer the phones in congressional offices get yelled at and sometimes cussed out by constituents all day long, so a little politeness goes a long way.
  • Your goal is to get the person on the other line to do something for you (pass along your message to the senator/congressperson), so speaking down to them demeaningly isn’t going to get you anywhere. Yelling one’s point has the opposite effect the yeller intends.  

*Solution: Just be polite! If you speak calmly and rationally, you are much more likely to receive attention from someone who is actively listening.

 

2. Don’t call/write in just to complain, call/write in about an action item.

  • “The Complainers” made up the majority of all incoming calls. They are people who are upset with some aspect of life and decide to complain to a 19-year-old intern about it for 10 minutes, often without pause.
  • Congressional staffers, whose job it is to be aware of today’s issues, already know the problems facing American and the world. But variables such as party disagreement, legislative rules not obvious to the public, and the likelihood a law would be ineffective or duplicative all affect which bills get drafted.
  • Sometimes the problem is more multifaceted than people realize, and merely complaining about an issue that everyone already knows about is a waste of everybody’s time.

*Solution: Is there a bill coming up that you want your representative to vote a certain way? Great, tell them! That’s what interns and Staff Assistants are there to do, note your stance on an issue and pass word along to the Senator/Congressperson. (And they really do!) You can also suggest concrete solutions, and even schedule an in-person meeting to do so. 

 

3. Be different from the last 100 callers.

  • I cannot begin to count how many conversations I’ve had with “birthers” and other conspiracy theorists. They may come in just behind The Complainers as to who makes up the majority of phone log. As much as I hate to say this, intelligent, articulate and well-informed people who were calling about a relevant issue were very much in the minority. 

*Solution: Don’t be that type of caller. Staffers love calls from well-spoken people who are actually calling about a specific bill or relevant issue. It’s a great break from the other calls they have received and will continue to receive that day, so be this type of caller.

 

4. Do not just sign your name to a pre-written mass email/letter/postcard/petition. 

  • What’s the fastest way to get dismissed by a staffer? This. Does several people sending in identical letters have a big impact? No.
  • These are referred to as “form letters,” and it’s not an effective way to garnish attention about an issue. Why? Since it’s a waste of time for a staffer to re-read the same exact thing multiple times, identical responses are sent to identical letters with little to no additional thought on the subject.
  • Should form letters have an impact? Well, everyone has the right to petition the government, so probably, but this is just how it is in practice. Individual letters/emails get routed to the legislative staffer who works on that specific issue (such as healthcare), and they draft responses accordingly.  But bulk identical postcards often get tossed in the recycling bin. 

*Solution: Write your own letter/email. Congressional offices are inundated with tons of mail every day. Original, individual letters/emails receive the most attention because they stand out in the pack.

**Bonus: Make sure your address is clear in your letter/postcard/email, otherwise it will get trashed. This is because congressional representatives only respond to their own constituents, and because Legislative Correspondents, whose job it is to reply to constituents, need somewhere to mail their response letter.

 

5. Try to speak to someone specific.

  • Those who have a legislative job (i.e. Legislative Correspondent, Legislative Aide/Assistant), will have a portfolio of specific issues he or she is responsible for, so the one who deals with the issue you’re calling about is the person you want to speak with if you can. Nine times out of ten, the person answering the phone won’t let you through since it’s their job to take messages anyway. But if you distinguish yourself from other callers by remaining calm, sounding professional, and indicating you’re calling about something specific, then you will have a much better chance of being transferred to the LC/LA.

*Solution: You can try something like, “Hello, this is _______, can I please talk to the healthcare LC about _________?” Better yet, ask for them by name by researching who it is in that office (that information is usually available online). 

 

Being proactive about an issue you care about beats passively letting things get worse. So please, voice your opinion to your representatives, and use these pointers to increase your effectiveness!


michelle-statonMichelle Staton is an editor at AlmostDocs. As a former senate staffer, her speciality is healthcare policy. Michelle also spent several years focusing on African international development, including a brief stint in Uganda in 2007. Her focus now is healthcare tech, and she wants to develop mobile apps to help bridge the gap between international aid workers and people in need. You can find her in NYC's West Village, hopelessly lost, or you can follow her on Twitter @MichelleStaton7 


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