It is difficult to determine which form of communication most effectively influences a legislator’s point of view. Personal visits, thoughtful letters, and telephone calls from constituents can all be highly effective. However, a personal visit from a constituent is clearly the most effective form of grassroots lobbying. If your legislator cannot meet with you, do not hesitate to meet with a staffer. Staff wield considerable power and are often able to give more time and attention to issues than legislators can. Meeting in the district office can be beneficial because legislators are usually more relaxed when they are home on weekends or during recess.
Perhaps the most important thing you need to know when meeting with a legislator is your subject. What is the substance of the legislation? Why is it important? What will happen if it passes? What will be the consequences if it fails? How much will it cost? Most important, what will be the impact of the legislation on the legislator’s constituents? It is helpful to give an illustration or two of how the problem will affect the legislator’s district.
It helps to be prepared and to know a little about the legislator you are lobbying. On which committees does he/she serve? What are his/her pet issues? How has he/she voted on similar legislation in the past? Much of this information can be obtained from the Internet. However, do not let a lack of detailed knowledge about a legislator stand in your way. Legislators pay attention to well-presented positions by constituents, regardless of their knowledge of personal details.
In all communications, whether by letter, phone or personal meeting, it is important to be accurate, brief, clear and timely. Never become angry or argumentative with the legislator about his or her failure to support your position. You will almost certainly have to deal with the same legislator sometime in the future. Most legislators have long memories and if you have strained your relationship by getting angry — no matter how much you may have been justified in doing so — chances are that you will not be allowed access to that legislator in the future. Most importantly never give partial, incorrect, or false information. If you do not know an answer to something, say so; but tell the legislator that you will get back to them.
Remember to acknowledge the arguments of your opposition and be prepared to explain why your position is best. Provide information both orally and in the form of a fact sheet that you can leave with the legislator. Be certain that it includes a brief description of your issue, why it is important to you, and the action that you want the legislator to take.
A Checklist for Individual Visits
- Know your legislator’s background on your particular issue, as well as their actual role.
- Select one spokesperson and assign roles. Plan who will discuss what before you get to the meeting. Be direct, clear, and brief.
- Always leave something tangible with the legislator: a business card, a list of supporters, a letter discussing your opposition or support for a bill or a fact sheet.
- Make sure you can fit your message into about five minutes, in case the legislator has an agenda of his or her own or engages in small talk. Be early, and you might get extra time if the appointment before yours was canceled.
- Stay focused on your issue. It is important to get your voice heard early.
- District office meetings are a good chance to get to know your legislator. Once scheduled, make sure you confirm the appointment a day or two before.
- You should have one key staff contact at your legislator’s district or capitol office. That way, the legislator can develop a rapport. If you get a favorable news article or picture, send a copy. If a special event is going to take place, invite the legislator and the staffer.
- Try to anticipate the questions and be prepared with answers. If you do not know, say so, but promise to research it quickly. Do not bluff or make up answers. One miss-statement can destroy the credibility of the meeting. Always follow up with a letter of thanks. Additionally, make sure your supporters are well informed of the outcome of any legislative activity, however small. The tiny victories will pave the way for giant wins. Other forms of appreciation, such as recognition in a newsletter, a press release, or a legislative effort summary is also a good idea.
Occasionally it is a good idea to bring a group of constituents to meet with a legislator about a specific issue. All of the above rules for an individual visit apply with a few slight variations:
- A group approach is more clearly and explicitly a visit from the urology patient community, rather than just a concerned constituent. The message that is being delivered is, in effect, coming from all urology patients in a community. It has a different kind of force than can be achieved by just one person.
- Keep the group small – three people is ideal and five is the maximum!
- It is always a good idea to make sure that most of the patients in the room are constituents.
- It may not be possible, but try to determine in advance who will be doing most of the talking. Certainly, if a patient personally knows the legislator they should make the introductions and get things started.