December 1, 2016
After a busy and political November, this week’s column takes a lighter tone: tips for letters.
Letters and emails are still the most common form of communicating with a member of Congress. Depending on the office, officials often receive hundreds to thousands of letters each week on a range of topics as wide as the ocean. Emails can easily be sent to most members of Congress via the official’s webpage (Note: this usually requires the constituent’s zip code to start and most sites do not allow for attachments).
Some of these letters are sent as form letters. These forms are often drafted by an association or a cause, and sent to its membership or supporters, as an URGENT “action item” to sign and forward along to a specific official. For most officials, unless there is an extremely massive quantity of form letters, the letters may flag the issue, but they do not move the needle. (And candidly, most staff find them to be a bit of a nuisance).
One of the biggest problems with form letters is that neither officials, nor their staff, really know the level of passion or commitment to the cause that a form letter signer holds. In surveying staff on this issue, one said that he called a few signers to gain a better understanding of the issue, and one signer said how he did not really know anything, while another said a neighbor asked her to forward it so she did, and so on it goes… not the best advocates. These letters are usually tallied up, the signer is often sent a courtesy form response back, and that is the end of it. In my experience, most form letters are a waste of time and a good reminder to always know what is being signed.
Facebook posts are growing more popular, however, an official usually cannot tell if the person is a constituent or not, so this is also not the most effective approach if a constituent is really trying to have a message be heard by his representative or senator.
If a person does not have a relationship with an office from a previous encounter, a good, old-fashioned, signed personal letter or email is still the way to go for written contact. Keep in mind that snail mail coming into the U.S. Capitol is screened, delaying its arrival. If an issue is urgent, an email or phone call may be best. For many offices, ten, genuine, personal letters are far more impactful than 100 form letters. A personal letter from a constituent that tells the story about how a person is specifically impacted by an issue, shares his opinion on legislation, and is polite and factually accurate, is valued. Doing all that in one page, and definitely less than two pages, is greatly appreciated. These are the letters that are READ, not tallied. Plus, personal letters often need and receive a more personal response. If a constituent feels his letter was not responded to well, or was too generic, the constituent should write another letter. Offices keep track of sent letters, so the staff will need to put more effort into a second response, as it should not send the same letter again.
And of course, if letter writing is not a person’s favorite activity, there is always making an actual telephone call to the office or attending a town hall meeting – depending on the issue and time-sensitivity, each method has its own benefits and value.