Tips for Being An Effective Grassroots Advocate

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The following was written by a professional lobbyist. While it is written about interactions with federal legislators, the guidance is applicable, for the most part, to all elected officials. You can download a PDF version of these guidelines by clicking here.

1. Reach out to your representative. Contact him or her and schedule a mutually convenient time to stop by the local office when Congress is not in session, and your representative is back home in your district, to introduce yourself. Click here to find ways to contact your representative. And click here to find out when the House of Representatives is in or out of session.

You can also introduce yourself at events where your representative appears, including Town Hall meetings. Look on your representative's web site for scheduled events.

2. Face-to-face meetings. Attend the introductory meeting either by yourself or with others. If you go with others, keep the group small. If you will be attending the appointment as a group, get together beforehand to “practice.” For example, one person could talk a little about the bill and reasons it is worthy of support, another could talk about how it could help the local economy, and another could “close” the meeting.

Stay organized and focused during the meeting to make the best use of your time. You will, in all likelihood, have between 15 minutes to a half hour. Don’t try to say everything in the first meeting. Remember, this is an introductory meeting and the goal is that you will have more conversations in the future.

3. Meeting handouts and materials. Keep it light. Giving too much material is overwhelming to your elected official and/or her or his staff, and the likelihood of all of it ending up in the trash is high. There is only so much written material that a congressional office can hold onto or read each day. Remember, they get information from many constituents and organizations.

A good idea is to bring a one-page informative sheet about the Open Fuel Standard Act. Click here to get a PDF Fact Sheet for just such purposes. Giving your representative that fact sheet is good enough for a first meeting. You can always provide more material down the road.

4. Get to know your representative's staff. Remember, congressional staff are the ones who have been tasked to take in all the information provided and digest it for the Member of Congress. It’s their job to get the detail for their bosses, who simply don’t have the time to research every issue about which they must be aware. Therefore, it is critical that you not only get to know the staff of your representative in the district office, but in the DC office as well!

Suggestion: Call the DC office and get the name of the staffer (“Legislative Assistants” or “LA’s”) who will handle the Open Standard Act. Different staffers handle different categories of issues. For example: National Security; Judiciary; Immigration; Energy; Defense. The Open Fuel Standard Act is both National Security and Energy. It might be called "Energy Security."

In all likelihood, more than one staffer will be involved. Get the correct spelling of the staffer’s name. Staffers of a representative will have an email address as follows: [First Name].[Last Name] @mail.house.gov.

5. Develop a working relationship with congressional staff. Either call the staffer (leave a detailed message if you get voice mail, which you frequently will), or send him or her an e-mail introducing yourself and requesting a convenient time to speak on the phone. Always note that you are a constituent because Hill offices get a tremendous volume of phone calls each day. They can be from other Members of Congress or their staff, vendors, lobbyists, constituents, and people who are not constituents, but may have heard the Member of Congress make a statement on CSPAN that upset them – or that they support – and call in about it.  It’s critical that the constituents who call in are weeded out for the staff.  Letting the person who answers the phone know that you are a constituent should immediately put you at the top of the pile, as your representative is there to serve you.

Start a working relationship with him or her. Periodically send articles of interest (don’t bombard the staffer every day!). You want to be viewed as a credible “go-to” person about the Open Fuel Standard.

Start the relationship gently. If you are viewed as too aggressive, or angry, or not credible, you probably won’t get a second chance and that’s a wasted opportunity.

6. Always be respectful, professional, and polite – regardless of how supportive your representative is. You’ll find many Members of Congress who might not be able to support you on one issue, but will on others.

Always remember that elected officials are just ordinary citizens like you. They depend on receiving reliable information from people who visit them in their offices. Think of your visits as educational sessions. Try to explain the Open Fuel Standard in the clearest, most compelling way possible.

Download a PDF version of these guidelines by clicking here.

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