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What Can You Do

Thanks to our friends at Men's Health Network

You may decide that you would like to make changes in the way an issued is treated by state or federal government. You may wish to see a greater emphasis put on education about the dangers of a specific disease, an increase in research dollars, or other changes that you feel would benefit a group or society. If so, you will probably want to influence your state and federal elected officials.

As a citizen, you can help obtain good legislation on state and national levels by communicating with your elected representatives in a timely fashion. You may do this as an individual, but it is often more effective to join with others who have a common interest. A group, or coalition, is far more visible, has greater resources, and carries more political weight. As Michael Hettinger, Chief of Staff for Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA), explains:

"Whether through mass mailings or visits to Congressional office, grassroots lobbying has a direct and positive impact on the legislative process. Each day, Members and Staff are visited by constituents, interest groups, and professional lobbyists. These visits help to shape a member's position on issues currently pending before Congress. Regardless of the issue to be discussed... Members and their staffs rely on these visits and letter writing campaigns to collect and analyze information, which is vital to formulating legislative policy which has a positive impact on their own Congressional districts and the United States."

To be effective, you must acquire an understanding of the legislative structure and process and then organize concerted efforts to effect the changes you desire. Individuals can be effective, but organized community and citizens' groups are more effective. Coalitions provide a focal point from which citizens can participate in the decision-making process and more effectively influence the legislative process. The following suggestions can make your efforts more effective.

Communicating with your elected officials

When communicating with elected officials, you want to use the most effective methods, taking care to use a style that will gain their attention while promoting your issue. When speaking to them, refer to senators as Senator (last name) and representatives as Representative (last name) or, alternately, Mr. (last name) or Ms. (last name). An opportunity for personal contact with your elected official is known as face time.

Establish a coordinator for your coalition's efforts, a person who collects reports from each coalition member who has contact with a policy maker. Ask each member of your coalition to report all contacts with policy makers to the coordinator. This allows your coalition to keep an accurate record of the opinions of policy makers at different stages in the process and assists in developing future strategies.

Methods of Communication, in order of effectiveness:

  • Personal face-to-face visit at their capitol or home office.
  • Face-to-face meeting at a fundraiser or social event.
  • Group visit, followed by a letter or telephone call.
  • Personal letter.
  • Telephone call.
  • Telegram or mailgram.
  • E-mail, if the person reads their e-mail. Some do not.
  • Petition.
  • Form letter.

To be most effective, combine at least two from this list. Make a personal visit and follow up with a letter or telephone call. Write a letter and follow up with a telephone call.

Suggestions for personal office visits:

Personal contact with legislators or staff should be professional and in careful consideration of their busy schedules. As Mike Hettinger explains:

  • Keep it short. It is best to keep it short and to the point. Members are on very tight schedules and they will get more out of the meeting if they can focus on a few important issues. A short written summary is the most effective way to get and keep a member's attention; this will also help staff to follow up with you and take any action that may be needed.Be brief, get to the point within the first 30 seconds.
  • Always identify yourself. If you are a constituent, mention that fact.
  • Ask the name of the person you are speaking to, and keep it for future reference.
  • Ask the name of the person who analyzes your issue for the lawmaker. ("Who analyzes health issues for the Senator/Representative.") Write down their name for future reference. Schedule an appointment to meet with them for an in-depth discussion of your issue.
  • Start from the basics. The official you are contacting may not understand the issue, and may not even know that it is an issue. Your contact may be the first time that he or she has heard your side of the story.
  • Do not be vague. State exactly what you want your Senator or Representative to do.
  • Do not be argumentative.
  • Stress the personal. Explain how the bill affects you, your family or your job.
  • Have one or two good pieces of information. Do not overwhelm them with facts.

Suggestions for letter writing:

  • Keep your letter short. One page or less.
  • Either type your letter or write legibly. Be courteous and include your telephone number and complete address.
  • If you are a constituent, state so in the first sentence.
  • Write early before the legislator has made up his/her mind on the issue, in order to spark his/her interest in your issue.
  • Don't be argumentative or threatening. Never use language like "I'll work for your opponent next election if you don't vote against this bill."
  • Make your point in the first two sentences and use the remainder of the letter to develop the reasoning behind your position. Be polite, and be specific about what you want them to do.
  • If you are interested in a particular bill, write again when a vote is imminent. Note the number of the bill and state your position in the first two sentences.
  • If available, use graphs and charts to make your point.
  • Send a copy of your letter to your coalition coordinator and also send that office a copy of any correspondence you receive from your Senators and Representative.
  • Use the proper form of address. When writing elected officials, address your letter to The Honorable (first name) (last name). Begin the letter with Dear (Senator or Representative) (last name). Contact your state or federal legislator and ask for a booklet which provides an in-depth explanation.

Telephone calls:

  • Telephone calls are particularly effective when a legislator is facing a vote on an issue. They are most effective if you have already established a working relationship with the legislator or his/her staff.
  • Keep the call short and to-the-point. If the person seems to want to extend the call, let them take the lead.
  • Make an outline of points you want to make in advance to help you order your thoughts through the conversation and to insure that you do not forget an important point during the call.
  • Identify yourself by name, address, and organization your represent, if any, and, if you are a constituent of the legislator, make that point known.

Testifying before a committee:

Testifying before a state committee is a very effective way to get your idea across to key decision makers. Most states allow anyone who wants to testify regarding an issue being considered before a committee to do so. However, your time may be limited to 5 minutes or less.

Testimony before a Congressional committee is by invitation only. If you wish to testify before a Congressional committee, make that request through your Senators or Representative.

  • Before you testify, brainstorm with others to identify possible questions and develop satisfactory answers.
  • Attend prior hearings to learn the hearing process.
  • Keep your testimony simple and easy to follow.
  • Use a real life story to illustrate your point, if possible.
  • If you are a constituent of one of the committee members, or one of the sponsors of the bill being considered, mention that fact.
  • Provide a written statement but develop a shorter one for your oral testimony. Take 20 copies to the hearing for distribution to legislators and their staff. Frequently legislators will read through your testimony while you are testifying.
  • Confine your remarks to facts that can be proven and provide supportive material for remarks that might be questioned.
  • Note support from other organizations or well-known individuals
  • Stay on track, don't let your testimony wander.
  • State specifically what you want to have happen.
  • If asked a question you do not know the answer to, tell the questioner that you do not know but will research the issue and quickly deliver an answer to him/her and the other members of the committee.
  • Practice your oral testimony the day before the hearing. Fine tune it until it can be given in under five minutes.

Media attention:

You may gain media attention for your cause. You may receive a call from a print reporter, a request for a radio interview (usually done over the telephone while you are at home or work), or a request to go to a studio for a television interview. If so, remembering a few simple rules can help produce the most positive coverage for your issue.

  • Develop a position paper that you and other members of your coalition can use as a guide when answering questions. This provides consistency in any media coverage you achieve.
  • Develop a media package that succinctly explains your issue. One or two pages will do but have back-up material in case a reporter wants to do an in-depth story.
  • Have a list of your talking points before you so that you can refer to them as the interview progresses.
  • If a reporter calls, respond quickly. They are usually on a deadline and need a quick and accurate response.
  • Off-the-record. No interview is ever truly "off the record."
  • Keep your response simple and give the important facts first. Offer to fax your media package to the reporter.
  • Be honest and straight forward - policy makers who read the story will rely on your response as an accurate presentation of your coalition's opinions and goals.
  • If you do not know the answer to a question, don't guess. Ask the reporter when the deadline is for the story and tell the reporter you will do your best to get them the requested information.
  • Remember - you want to be a media resource. Be accurate, be nice (even to unfriendly reporters), and always thank them for contacting you.

Don'ts...

No hard votes. Don't put the lawmaker in the position of having to make a hard vote. Develop compromises that achieve your goals and allow the lawmaker to vote for you without endangering his/her position.

No surprises. Lawmakers cannot afford to pass a bill that creates "surprises" after being enacted that can cost them an election.

No assumptions. Make no assumptions about a lawmaker's position on an issue. Always approach them with an open mind. You may be surprised how open they are to a good suggestion.

Dos...

The "Big Rule" - Know how to count (votes).

Be a Winner. Be polite, be quick, be accurate, and keep in close contact with your activist coordinator.

I found Fathers For Equal Rights through my church. Fathers For Equal Rights empowered me to do the right thing for my son through critical knowledge, and strategic access to affordable legal assistance.
  -- David A. - Dallas, TX

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