How to Communicate with Elected Officials

Creating close personal relationships is the strongest mean of influencing legislative thinking. Personal visits, letters, and telephone calls are ways to develop these crucial relationships. As you know, you pay more attention to someone who has gone out of their way to be helpful than to a stranger.

Good relations with public officials are built in much the same way they are cultivated with anyone else: by being friendly and personally helpful, by catering to professional political needs and interests, and by being a useful and trustworthy source of sound information and insight.

The following information gives some insight as to how to contact an elected official by personal visit, by letter, or by telephone. It is important to stress that in order to develop and maintain a relationship with an elected official, you need to make contact with an official several times a year.

Personal Visits

Meeting with an elected representative is an effective way to convey a message about a specific legislative issue. Below are some suggestions to consider when planning a visit.

Plan your visit carefully: Be clear about what it is you want to achieve; determine in advance which member you need to meet with to achieve your purpose. Keep in mind that legislators tend to be most receptive to constituents from their own districts.

Make an appointment: Recognize that legislators and officials have multiple demands on their time. Contact the Appointment Secretary/Scheduler and explain your purpose and who you represent. It is easier for the staff to arrange a meeting if they know what you wish to discuss and your relationship to the area or interests represented by the member. If the legislator's calendar is full ask to meet with the staff aide handling the issue. Often legislative staff are more knowledgeable about the details of particular issues than legislators themselves.

Be prompt and patient: When it is time to meet, be punctual and patient. It is not uncommon for a representative to be late, or to have a meeting interrupted, due to the member's crowded schedule. If interruptions do occur, be flexible. When the opportunity presents itself, continue the meeting with a member's staff.

Be prepared: Know the issue and facts behind the issue. Take time in advance to learn about the legislator's constituency, political situation, and positions on related issues. Members are required to take positions on many different issues. In some instances, a member may lack important details about the pros and cons of a particular matter. It is therefore helpful to receive information and examples that demonstrate clearly the impact or benefits associated with a particular issue or piece of legislation.

Be truthful: Never mislead a legislator or government official. Your credibility, and perhaps that of those you represent, will be permanently damaged if you do.

Try to get the legislator to state his or her opinion on the issue: Depending on the response, press your point firmly, but politely; preserve a mutually respectful relationship for future issue.

Be political: Members want to represent the best interests of their district or state. Wherever possible, demonstrate the connection between what you are requesting and the interests of the member's constituency. If possible, describe for the member how you or your group can be of assistance to him or her. Where it is appropriate, remember to ask for a commitment.

Be responsive: If asked questions for which you do not know the answers, promise to follow up with the necessary information - and do so.

Be courteous: Follow up the meeting with a thank you letter that outlines the different points covered during the meeting, and send along any additional information and material requested. If you should obtain additional reports or information that would be useful to legislators, send those documents with a brief personal cover note; that will help establish you as a useful resource. Eventually, you may even find officials calling you for information, help, or your point of view on new issues.

Writing Letters

The letter is the most popular choice of communication with elected representatives. Legislators are impressed by large numbers of informed, personal communications from constituents in their districts. They are not influenced by form letters even if they are sent by constituents from their own district. Usually, a legislative alert will contain a request for you to write a letter to your representative. The following tips should be kept in mind when writing the letter and the sample format enclosed should also assist you when composing your correspondence.

Address your letter properly: use the guide in this packet to properly address the legislator and if at all possible type or generate your letter using a computer.

Be brief and specific: Discuss only one issue in each letter and identify a bill number and title if possible. Identify the purpose for writing in the first paragraph and explain how the issue would affect you and your profession. Specific examples and brief supporting data of the legislation's impact on local interests have the most impact.

Ask for a reply: State your position on an issue and if you do not know the legislator's position on an issue ask for a reply. Remember to be courteous and polite and offer additional facts if it is appropriate.

Be reasonable and courteous: Don't ask for the impossible, and don't threaten. It may harm your cause.

Be sure to thank the legislator: if they support your position on an issue. Very often legislators only hear from people who need something. By offering a short thank you note you may be looked upon more favorably the next time you make a contact.

Be sure to restate your position: at the end of the letter. This will help to reinforce your point.

Keep it brief: Try to keep your letter to 1-2 pages. Legislators and their staff do not have time to read more than that.

There are a number of things you should not do when writing an elected official.

DON'T write on a post card.

DON'T begin on the righteous note of "as a citizen and a taxpayer". They assume that you are not an alien, and they know we all pay taxes.

DON'T apologize for taking their time. If your letter is short and expresses your opinion, they are glad to give you a hearing.

DON'T be rude or threatening it will get you nowhere.

DON'T send a carbon copy to other legislators. Write each letter individually.

Remember: It is the straightforward letter carrying the appeal of earnestness that commands the interest and respect of legislators. It is especially helpful if you can state how the bill would affect you and your community. Legislators must decide how to vote on hundreds of bills each session, and they need and want your help in telling them how these bills would affect their district.

How to Address Letters

State Senator
The Honorable (Name)
State Senate
State House
Dear Senator ________:

United States Senator
The Honorable (Name)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator ________:

State Representative
The Honorable (Name)
House of Representatives
State House
Dear Mr. ________ or
Dear Representative ________:

United States Representative
The Honorable (Name)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Congressman or
or Congresswoman ________:

The Honorable (Name)
Governor of (State)
State House
Dear Governor ________:

The President
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President ________:

Note: When writing to the Chair of a Committee or the Speaker of the House, it is proper to address them as:

Dear Mr. Chairman or Madam Chairwoman:
or Dear Mr. Speaker or Madam Speaker:

Sample Letter

Suggested Form

Paragraph 1: I'm writing to urge you to support/oppose (bill number) (Or I am writing to express my concern about.... (issue)). Immediately identify the subject about which you are writing, and the bill number of the legislation, if you know it. Briefly state your concern.

Paragraph 2: I am a (lifelong) resident of (city or town). It is important to let your state legislator know you are writing as a constituent. Your letter carries more weight if you live, work, or do business in the lawmaker's district.

U>Paragraph 3 (4,5): I urge you to support/ oppose (bill number) because... (or: The reason I'm very concerned about this issue is because..) Clearly and briefly explain your concerns. If you're writing about a specific bill, explain the reasons you support or oppose the bill. Make it real. State facts if you can. Give illustrations. Tell how you, your family, your business, your patients, your community, or your region would be affected. Offer to give more information about the subject and the basis of your views.

Closing: Repeat the outcome you are seeking. I urge you to... (or: I hope I can count on your help to: ) I would appreciate knowing your views on this matter. Thank you for your consideration. Always thank the legislator for his or her help.

Guidelines for Preparing Effective Testimony

On occasion, you may be asked to give testimony on a bill before a committee. Every presentation should be the most convincing that can be made. It should be expert, well-organized, well-documented, logical, and persuasive. The following are some suggestions for preparing effective testimony.

How to get started:

  • Know the legislative history of the issue, and the substance of any prior testimony. Identify the principal proponents and opponents of the issue and the major arguments of each side.
  • Select the best possible witness or team of witnesses.
  • Prepare a testimony outline listing the major points to be covered and the rational and emotional analysis to be offered in support of each major point.

What to say:

  • Identify the witness by name, title, and explain the witnesses background and affiliation with the group he or she is representing.
  • Be brief, but comprehensive, clear, articulate, and persuasive.
  • Be as knowledgeable as possible about your subject area and be prepared to offer necessary documentation and support for your points.
  • Do not attempt to conceal a legitimate self-interest which you or your group have in the matter before the committee.
  • Be responsive and truthful in answering questions of the committee members.
  • Be familiar with the basic format of a committee hearing; monitor another hearing in advance if possible.
  • Be early: identify names with faces of committee members so that you can address them personally if questioned.
  • Do not be afraid to say, "I don't know the answer to that question, but I will certainly find out."

Telephone Calls

Telephone calls have the benefit of immediacy. While the need to be brief works against providing much supporting information, telephone calls are most effective when time is short. The following are some helpful hints when calling an elected official.

  • Ask to speak to the legislator, but don't be surprised if that person is not available. Be sure to speak to the staff person who handles the issue which you are interested in.
  • Identify yourself and state the issue name. Provide the bill number when possible. Leave a brief message for the legislator that articulates your position.
  • Ask the legislator's position on the issue.
  • If you are a resident of the representative's district be sure to let the staff person know. Legislators tend to be more responsive to calls from constituents in their districts.
  • Telephone calls are also useful to follow up on previous communications. Remember, don't assume a single communication will do the job of getting the legislator's vote.