Communicating with Policy Makers: Having an Effective Visit
Before the Meeting:
- Identify your main message. e.g. "please play a leadership role in advancing policies to reduce the threat of global warming” or “please vote for bills that will reduce heat-trapping gas emissions."
- Determine roles for participants: (if more than one person is meeting with the legislator)
- Designate a group leader to open and close the meeting, to deliver any leave-behind materials, and to keep the discussion moving.
- Identify a different person to present each issue or main message.
- Prepare and practice your piece of the meeting.
- Time permitting; hold a dry run of the entire meeting.
During the Meeting:
- Dress nicely. Business attire is appropriate. Don’t let your appearance detract from your message or impair your credibility.
- Introduce yourself. Tell your legislator or staff person the institution with which you are associated and identify your field of study (i.e. ecology). If you represent an organization, note its name, where the group is located, and the size of its membership. If you are visiting as an individual, make sure to mention that you're a constituent. If you have any family, social, business, or political ties to the legislator, mention them as well.
- Start with a compliment. If possible, thank the member for a good stand he or she recently took on an issue and/or mention if you voted for the member. At a minimum, thank them for taking the time to meet with you.
- Take the initiative. State clearly and concisely what issue you want to discuss, what your position is, and what action you want the member to take. Follow this with facts about why he or she should take your position.
- Make a local connection. Stress how the issue will affect the legislator's district or state and, if possible, tell a personal story that highlights your experience with the issue and why you care about it.
- Bring a "leave-behind" document. Give the legislator a brief fact sheet (one to two pages max.) that outlines your position and explains what the bill does (if there is one) and why he or she should support your viewpoint.
- Drop names. Mention any other organizations, important individuals, government officials, and legislators that support your position. Be a good listener. After you make your pitch, allow the legislator to respond. Bring the conversation back to the issue at hand if he or she goes off on a tangent or tries to evade your position.
- Don’t answer what you don’t know. Answer questions to the best of your ability. However, if you don’t know an answer, admit it. This ensures you maintain credibility and it provides an opportunity for a relevant follow-up letter to provide any additional information.
- Ask a direct question. Ask a question to which the legislator can respond “yes” or “no.” For example, “Can we count on you to cosponsor the bill?” Press politely for a commitment, unless the member is clearly opposed to your position or to making a commitment.
- Thank the legislator. Always thank the legislator for his or her time at the end of the meeting, even if he or she did not agree with your position.
- Write down your impressions. Immediately after the meeting, write down any information you learned about the legislator's position or concerns so we can use it to develop your legislative strategy.
- Follow up. Always follow up with a prompt thank you letter. In the letter, reiterate your key points and any commitments the legislator made to you. Include all follow-up information you promised to provide
General Tips To Keep In Mind:
- No single participant should talk for more than five minutes at a time.
- Identify a local angle. How does the issue affect the legislator’s district or state?
- Learn about your legislator in advance
- What kind of constituency does the legislator have—rural, urban, suburban? What are the principal influences there—labor, business, farmers?
- What were the winning margins in his or her previous elections? If they were narrow, the legislator knows he or she is vulnerable.
- What is his or her background: upbringing, education, wealth, and other relevant previous experience?
- What sort of ties does the legislator have to state or local organizations?
- Where do the legislator’s campaign contributions come from?
- Who or what influences this legislator the most?
- Be confident, but refrain from lecturing.There’s no one “right” way to talk with an elected official. Use these guidelines, but trust your instincts, be flexible and have fun.
- Business formal dress is required in the Capitol.
- Members of the legislature are very busy and could be called out of the meeting—or not available at all—leaving you with their legislative aide that handles the issue. Don’t let this discourage you. Meeting with a staff member can be equally or even more productive than meeting with the member. Staff can have tremendous influence over legislators and in many cases know far more about the legislation than the legislators themselves. Be sure to ask the staff person to convey your views and legislative requests to their boss.
- Change of topic—the legislator may hijack the agenda or waste valuable time by bringing up unrelated issues. While it is important to be cordial and flexible, this is a meeting for you to relay your concerns to an elected official. Quickly acknowledge and address their issue and redirect the discussion back to the agenda. Don’t let them take you off-course for more than a moment.