Make Your Voice Heard: Helpful Hints for Contacting Legislators
Meeting Face-to Face
The best way to begin a long-term relationship with a Member of Congress or a member’s staff is a face-to-face personal exchange. It enables your Member of Congress to connect your face to your subsequent letters and phone calls, giving them greater personal significance.
While it is not always easy to arrange a one-on-one meeting with your representative or senators, you can improve your chances by: (1) Getting someone who already knows the member to get you an appointment; (2) Arranging a group meeting with a number of the member’s constituents; (3) Meeting with the Member at one of his or her district offices near your home; or (4) Scheduling your Washington visit far in advance to make a meeting with the member more likely.
Another way to meet a member is to arrange for him or her to address a group of pharmacists for a question-and-answer session. The member’s appointments secretary in Washington, or a scheduling assistant in the district office, can help work out an appropriate time and place. You can also invite the member to your pharmacy (make sure this is ok with your employer) to see your practice first hand.
If you can’t arrange a meeting with the member as soon as you need to, remember that the member’s staff does most of the research on legislation. Ask to meet with the legislative assistant for health issues.
When you meet:
- Introduce yourself and state why you are there;
- Mention mutual friends/contacts;
- Emphasize key points that personally concern you;
- Keep the discussion brief;
- Expect questions and be responsive, not argumentative;
- Take a brief synopsis of your key points and supportive material to leave as a reminder;
- Be enthusiastic and show you care about the issue;
- If possible, get a commitment of support; and
- Follow up with a thank you letter, even if you were not successful.
Most important, have a specific objective in mind when you meet with your elected representative, and make sure the objective and your views are addressed during the meeting. Too often, constituents and representative spend their time in “social” conversation, and don’t engage in the proper mix of social and business talk necessary when important issues are being considered by Congress.
Do’s and Don’ts When Communicating with Legislators
- Clearly identify the subject in which you are personally interested, including House and Senate bill numbers, if you know them.
- Explain any business connections you may have relative to the issue, and the impact you perceive the issue will have on them.
- Write legibly and briefly.
- Use personal experiences to support your position.
- Use your own words on business or personal stationary.
- Restrict yourself to a single issue.
- Communicate while legislation is under consideration in committee, conference, or on the floor.
- Write more than once on the same issue if the legislation changes favorably, or unfavorably, and note why these changes will help or hurt you.
- Write to the committee and subcommittee chairmen responsible for the legislation if you have specific information that will help them make a more informed judgment on the issue (send a copy to your representative or senators).
- Be rude or threaten.
- Pretend to have greater political influence than you really have.
- Promise something you can't deliver.
- Be self-righteous or all-knowing.
- Be vague about the issue (research your member’s position and present facts to support or refute it).
- Forget to thank the member for past favors.
- Bring up past campaign contributions or present a check during your meeting. (This should be done at events specifically for fundraising.)
What Your Legislator Needs from You
- Timely and correct information on pending or proposed legislation, together with your best estimate of the legislation’s local and/or national impact.
- “Thank you” letters;
- Exposure to constituents, such as:
- photo opportunities when they’re home visiting
- speaking engagements before constituents on health issues
- receptions at which to meet community pharmacists and pharmacists’ supporters from the community
- favorable publicity in the local media on stands they have taken
- appearances on local radio/TV talk shows, and
- fundraising and other volunteer help in campaigning for office.
Getting public visibility for your legislators is not as difficult as it may seem, as long as you understand and respect the conditions and time frames that govern the busy schedules of media representatives. For example, when publicizing a special event, such as the appearance of a member of Congress at a meeting of local pharmacists, make sure you are aware of the daily and weekly press publication schedules and the electronic media’s programming schedules. Also, try to schedule such events so as not to conflict with other matters deemed by the media as “more important.” If, for example, your local TV station is invited to attend your group’s presentation of its ”pharmacist of the year” award on the same evening that the city’s first female mayor is sworn in, which event are they going to cover? Sometimes you may have an important story that warrants “exclusivity”—for instance, your organization may have played an inside role in a controversial issue or it may have conducted a breakthrough study whose findings you wish to release through one influential source. In such cases, the media representative—who most likely publishes under his or her byline—will want a guarantee that the story is being given to him or her alone. When working on a story with a reporter, be sure they know whether it is an “exclusive.”
It is extremely helpful to develop a professional working relationship with key media representatives, since these people can give you insights into getting your message out to the public. And try to direct the information you want publicized to the proper media source. Radio and television news directors and assignment editors decide who will cover a given story. Newspapers and magazine editors decide whether to publish your “letter to the editor” or other newsworthy items. Both groups have deadlines. Respect them and they will be more responsive to your future requests.