I have more patience with elected officials than most people because I experienced the battles of the 1970s and ’80s from several vantage points. I was elected to (and chaired) the Model Cities Board in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was also active on several state, city, and quasi-public committees.
Although that was a while ago, I believe the fundamentals of negotiation and persuasion haven’t changed. Here are some tips for effectively communicating with elected officials and their staff:
1. Leave your rage at home. There is no quicker way to turn off officials than to express your anger. A better strategy is to know what you’re talking about. Practice making your points strongly, persistently—and politely—and then try to anticipate objections. This way you’ll be ready to respond to anything.
2. Put yourself in their shoes. All day long, day after day, politicians encounter advocates of every persuasion. Don’t write off any elected official until he or she proves unshakably opposed to your position. Most politicians run for office to accomplish the things that they believe in. My rough estimate is that legislators have strong beliefs for or against 25 percent of the legislation coming up for a vote and may feel obligated to vote a given way on another 25 percent. That leaves 50 percent of the time in which they’re persuadable. Legislators will respond more favorably to you if you’re knowledgeable and able to defend your position clearly and succinctly.
3. Remember that politicians are bargainers. They have to be in order to be successful. They sift the often conflicting demands of their constituents and will respect you more if you prove to be a shrewd advocate. Always petition for everything that you want. Be definite and forceful, but know when to stop and what to settle for.
4. Be willing to reciprocate. When someone supports you or your cause, that person has reason to expect your support in return. If you can corral a dozen or more constituents in the legislator’s district, consider hosting a coffee-and-snack meet and greet on the politician’s behalf. Or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper thanking the politician for being responsive.
And now, here are some do’s and don’ts provided by a senior adviser to a U.S. senator:
-The best way to be heard is face to face: Go to your representative’s local or D.C. office, town hall meetings, events, and the “mobile offices” that staff hold periodically. (Times can be found on each congress member’s website.)
-When you go, ask questions—and push for answers. The more vocal and persistent you are, the better.
–Most importantly, pick up the phone—every day. Members of Congress and their senior staff get daily reports about the three most-called-about topics, including how many people said what about each topic. It’s much the same at statehouses and city halls. Make your call personal if you can. Give your name and ZIP code, and say, “I voted for you in the last election, and I’m worried/happy about …” or “As a teacher, I’m concerned that ….” Pick one or two specific things per day to focus on, and be clear about what you want your representative to do. And don’t worry if you feel awkward—the opposition doesn’t, and you won’t, either, after a few days.
Now, go get ’em!
Written by long-time PETA member and show business historian and author Frank Cullen.