When it comes to lobbying, the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease. And while many different forms of lobbying can produce positive results, the most effective method is to meet with your elected officials personally.
But if you’re going to have a personal meeting with elected officials, you want to do what you need to do in order to get the most out of the visit. You want them to know what you think and why. You want to know what they think – and what they will do. And you want to make it as likely – and easy – as possible for them to agree to say “yes”.
Here are some simple tips to keep in mind that will help you get the most out of it.
Plan Your Visit
Treat it like you would any important business meeting (or at least the ones that you actually prepare for!). Be clear about what you want to accomplish. Identify which members of the legislative body (or council) you need to talk with to help achieve your goals. Elected officials usually won’t give as much priority to people who are not in their districts, so be sure to meet with the ones who represent YOU. If you don’t live in their district, take someone with you who does. Know what you want to say beforehand. Prepare a fact sheet or position paper that you can leave with them AFTER the meeting is over, (along with your contact information).
Schedule an Appointment
The “higher up” the political food chain the official is, the more staff they are likely to have. For local (and some state) officials, you can probably contact them directly. Federal officials with have a scheduler that you will need to contact to arrange a meeting. Explain your purpose and why you want to meet with them. Make sure that you have an understanding of how long the meeting will last. Elected officials typically like them short and sweet. Fifteen minutes is a good rule of thumb.
That’s enough time for you to accomplish two goals: 1) tell them what you want them to do and why, and 2) get feedback so you know what to expect from them, (and if whether or not they need more pressure from others who think like you do).
Make sure that you have accurate information and material available on your issue. Elected officials have to deal with many issues, and it’s possible that they might not have the information that you can provide. Remember that there are always two sides to any issue (at least), and the more you know about the arguments of the opposition, the more effective your information should be in countering it.
Remember, frame the “problem” to fit your “solution”. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. The most important points for you to get across are why the issue is important to you, and that you feel passionately about it. You’re a citizen with concerns. More importantly (to them), you’re a registered voter.
Be On Time and Be Patient
When seeing any elected official, be punctual. But remember, it’s not uncommon for them to run behind schedule or to have meetings get interrupted. If there is an interruption, be flexible. If possible, continue the meeting with a member of their staff.
Don’t Be Intimidated
Don’t let yourself get nervous or intimidated. Sure, you’re on their turf, but you’re also their boss. They work for you. Just remember to be polite about it. You’ve got something they want (your vote…and maybe even your help).
Pin Them Down
Elected officials will usually try to be noncommittal because as soon as they take a position they probably make someone angry. They would rather just listen politely, empathize, then shake hands and lead you to the door. Your job is to get to the bottom line. Sure it’s nice to have the satisfaction of being heard, but where do they stand at the end of the day? Be polite, but pin them down. (For example, “I’m glad that you’re concerned, but will you vote for or against the bill?” or, “I’m glad to hear you agree in concept, but will you cosponsor the bill?”) They may not like it, but they will respect you for it.
Most elected officials try to represent the best interests of their constituents, (or at least the good ones do). Whenever possible, draw a correlation between what you want and the interests of your community, (i.e. their district). Show them that you are not the only one who feels the way you do.
They may not want to take your side in order to avoid taking “heat” over the issue, but you could offer to help solve this problem by working to counteract the heat. Offer to write supportive letters-to-the-editor, phone calls to local talk radio, or even send out a press release from your group thanking them for their support. Find out what “cover” they may need to help get them over the line. Offer to work with their staff to get it done. Be helpful and make it easy for them to say yes.
If an elected official expresses an interest in your issue or request, be ready to answer questions or provide any additional information they may need. Afterwards, follow up with a thank-you letter highlighting your discussion, (especially if they agreed to anything), and include any additional information they may have requested.
In our system of government, the squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, and given that the percentage of people who take the time to meet personally with elected officials is so incredibly low, it shows commitment on your part. And it lets them know just how squeaky you might be.
If done consistently and professionally, meeting with your elected officials will help you be a much more effective advocate for the things that you care about. Building relationships with them will not only further your credibility as a citizen (or organization), but it will also provide opportunities for you to have a greater impact for the conservative cause in the future.
Make sure to get the most out of it!