Contacting and Meeting with Policymakers
Don’t be discouraged by the fact that members of Congress and state legislators are inundated by messages and requests for meetings. The staff members in legislators’ offices are set up to handle massive quantities of email, calls, social media messages, and letters. Each communication is reviewed by staff to determine how to respond and how to count it in terms of their office tally on the issue.
And while the messages get counted, a qualitative difference in messages is also taken into account. The more a communication seems to be the product of an individual, and less that of a mass campaign, the more likely the member of Congress is to see it and make special note of it. While it’s important to do whatever you can, given the time you have available, keep in mind that Congressional staff rank effectiveness as follows, from most effective to least:
- Personal call or meeting with the legislator: If someone in your network/coalition knows the legislator, you can ask the scheduler to add this person to the legislator’s list of supporters whose calls he/she will return during a set “call time” each day. You don’t need to know the legislator personally to request a meeting.
- Coalition letter signed by a few prominent local organizations: Once you’ve sent the letter by email to the office, be sure to send it directly to the staff contact responsible for the issue you are addressing. You can also link to the letter on your social media channel and link to the policymaker’s account.
- Social media messages from local people on the same day in response to a legislator’s post: A survey of Congressional staff found that as few as 30 social media comments were effective to get a lawmaker’s attention on a given topic.
- Personal e-mails to staff with whom you have built relationships or met recently in D.C. or the district office, with an eye-catching, or at least clear, subject line: Each day, Congressional staff receive several hundred e-mails. If there is a vote coming up and it will harm the orchestra, your subject line could read: “Board member from ABC Philharmonic Orchestra urges Rep. XYZ to vote no on today’s vote to cut NEA funding.”
- Letters on business letterhead: Letters from local businesses and organizations e-mailed to the right staff member also get noticed. If members of your board or coalition partners are also business owners, encourage them to speak up in that capacity. The letter could be attached to an e-mail with this subject line, “ABC Corporation (employing more than 1,000 residents of Anytown, USA) urges Rep. XYZ to vote no on today’s vote to cut NEA funding.”
- General e-mails sent through the office’s main website account are fine but may go to spam. Send to individuals as much as possible.
- Scripted calls to the main office line and form letters/postcards to offices are among the least effective communications, unless they are received by the office at an extraordinarily high volume. Physical mail goes through security and is often delayed. Some offices just count the number of calls they receive but don’t take your information.
- Petitions. Please, please know the limits of petitions. Elected officials dismiss messages that aren’t confirmed to come from their own constituents. With rare exceptions, the primary purpose of petitions is for the organization to collect your contact information for future use. Sign them if you will, but know that your job as an advocate is not done by doing so!
Public Town Halls
Town halls or similar public forums should not be overlooked by orchestra advocates. You can attend these public meetings and ask questions about the role of the arts in public policy. Doing so can also remind the general public of your orchestra’s engagement in the issues that matter to your community. As long as you do not endorse a candidate or party on behalf of the orchestra, this activity is perfectly allowable for orchestra advocates.
Meeting with constituents is as much a part of a legislator’s job as voting in committee or on the floor. Securing and preparing for the meeting:
- Call the member’s office to speak with the legislative assistant who handles the issue(s) you want to discuss, and he/she will refer you to the scheduler.
- Be ready with the number of people joining you in the meeting, the dates and times you can meet, and the topics you wish to discuss.
- The best days to meet in your home district or state are during recesses, when members of Congress return home from D.C. These “home” meetings can be most effective because you get more time with fewer interruptions and distractions, and it involves less expense for you.
- When you have an appointment, be sure to set a quick pre-meeting with others attending from your orchestra or coalition to discuss what you want to achieve and to plan your roles.
- Be sure to take some materials to the legislator to illustrate or amplify your points, but do not overwhelm him/her with paper. Similarly, avoid using too many statistics. An overreliance on numbers can kill a meeting.
- If you wind up meeting with staff even though you had an appointment with the legislator, don’t worry. Staff members are very important decision makers, and you can also get another shot at a future meeting with the legislator.
Key points for the meeting itself:
- Be on time, if not a few minutes early.
- State your issue(s) succinctly, outlining your concerns, and spending a very few minutes on the basic facts of your orchestra’s work in the community.
- Don’t do all the talking—listen, and take notes, too. Try to explore what the legislator’s views and priorities are, and make note of interesting personal details that may come up, like a fondness for a particular type of music, any musical family members, or friends you have in common.
- When the legislator asks questions, provide direct answers whenever possible. If you don’t know the answer, admit it and say you’ll find out and get back to him/her.
- Ask the legislator how, and with whom, you should follow up in the future. Sometimes, the commitments made or views expressed by the legislator don’t get back to the staffer who handles the issue.
- Have a specific requested action (even if it’s just for continued dialogue), but don’t be discouraged if legislators decline to take a solid position or make commitments.
After the Meeting:
- Send a thank-you e-mail to the legislator and/or their staffer, restating the main points of the meeting. Send any information requested in the meeting. Make note of any commitments that were made to you.
- As a vote approaches on the issues you discussed, be sure to send your legislator a reminder of the meeting you had, expressing your interest in his/her support. It helps remind them of the personal connection.
- Report the results of your meeting to your board, staff, Orchestra Advocacy Network, coalition partners, and others as appropriate.