Ways to Communicate

There are many ways to communicate with legislators. Some make it easy by providing a link on their Web sites. Most prefer letters and/or visits. Remember, timing is everything. Make sure you know the legislative cycles for various governing bodies. The sooner you voice your concerns the better. ALA and many state associations issue action alerts on key issues.

Visits
Face-to face discussion is the most effective means of communication and helps to establish a solid working relationship. While politicians have demanding schedules, but generally welcome opportunities to stay in touch with their constituents. Visits to district offices may be easier—and more relaxing—for both advocates and legislators. It’s better if citizen advocates outnumber staff.

  • Know your legislator. Fill out the pocket checklist provided and review it before making contacts.
  • Know when is the best time to time to schedule visits. Timing is everything. All legislative bodies have their own cycles. Make a point of knowing when the legislature meets, when key committee hearings are held, when bills are marked up, when debate is scheduled, when recess is scheduled. Time your visit accordingly.
  • Know who to bring. Delegates should be constituents, and citizen advocates should outnumber staff. Keep the delegation small enough for an easy exchange of views.
  • Know how to make your case. Make sure everyone understands and agrees on grounds rules before the visit. Choose a spokesperson who will lead the discussion, cover the main points and keep the conversation focused. Not everyone needs to speak to make a contribution. Be prepared to answer hard questions.
  • Know why you’re there. Have a clear agenda. Tell the legislator what specific legislation you want him or her to support. Legislators can’t keep track of all pending legislation. Make it easy for them to help you.
  • Know what you don’t know. Practice your presentation with at least one person who is unfamiliar with your issues. They may point out inconsistencies or ask questions that you’ve overlooked. Edit your presentation accordingly.
  • Know what to bring. Bring a policy statement or fact sheets that supports your position. Keep paper to a minimum—one page is best.

Letters
Letters are a simple and powerful way to let a legislator know how you feel. Legislators pay attention because letters represent votes. And each letter is deemed to represent several likeminded citizens. Your letter may be formal or informal, typed or handwritten.

  • Be sure to identify yourself as a constituent and include your contact information.
  • Use the correct form of address.
  • Write from your own experience. A personalized letter carries more weight than a form letter.
  • Limit yourself to two or three paragraphs—no more than a page.

Telephone calls
Telephone calls are appropriate and easy, especially if there is a vote pending. When should you call? Call to ask support before a hearing or floor vote, to ask for help with legislative colleagues or to convey urgent concerns.

  • Start by identifying yourself, where you live and why you are calling.
  • Write down your key points.
  • Again, be brief and express thanks.
  • Write down when you called, whom you spoke with and the outcome of the call for follow up and a thank you note.
  • Encourage others to call.

E-mail and fax
These options are best used when time is of the essence, e.g., in the days approaching a key vote. Follow the same general rules as regular correspondence. The following are especially important for email.

  • Put your name and address at the top of your message so it is clear you are a constituent.
  • Be very brief and personal. If you are working from a form message, personalize it.
  • Make your view known in the subject line (e.g., "Support the library") and do not expect a response. Staff may check only the subject lines to gauge public opinion on a particular issue.
  • Avoid attachments, which are rarely read.
  • Use e-mail sparingly to avoid being considered "spam."
  • Proof carefully, especially when writing in haste. Mistakes may cost you credibility.


Working with Government Officials and Legislators Home

Tough Economy Home