Advocacy 101: A guide to getting through to your elected officials on the issues that matter
We the people have the power to influence change through the people we elect to represent us. While letter-writing and phone calls are as effective as ever (if not more so), new technology gives us more ways to make a difference in our communities, and social media is making it easier to stand up for the causes and concerns that are meaningful to us.
Here are some tried and true methods to make the most out of any medium — be it a personal visit, a phone call, an email, a tweet, or good old-fashioned snail mail. Although much of NPCA’s work focuses on contacting federal officials, these methods are effective with state and local representatives, too!
Social media has become more and more common with almost every demographic in the 21st century. Three out of every four Americans has some kind of online profile. What’s this mean for advocacy? It means you have an audience. Members of Congress actually have staff assigned to monitor social media profiles and user engagement on certain issues. In fact, according to the Congressional Management Foundation, 76 percent of these staffers agree that social media has allowed members of Congress to engage in more meaningful interactions with their constituents.
So, what’s the “right” way to get through to your member of Congress? Turns out the only consistently proven method is persistence. On Twitter, one of the best platforms for reaching elected officials, studies indicate that it takes at least 10 comments about a particular issue to get someone on the Hill to notice your cause. They can’t all be from you though. Get a few of your like-minded friends to help out and coordinate your efforts.
For instance, if an official in your district releases a statement and you want to express your support or opposition, tag that official in a tweet. Then encourage your friends to do the same. You want your tweets to be both persistent and consistent, so stagger them for every few minutes, if possible. Studies show that the more time that passes between the time an office posts and your engagement, the less likely your response will be reviewed, so as soon as you notice an issue to engage with, act. Use those 140 characters to your advantage.
Also, elected officials prioritize feedback from their constituents, and many staffers indicate that they have a very hard time deciphering if posts are from their particular constituents. So, if you’re comfortable doing so, make sure your account is public, add a first and last name, and post contact information on your bio. Obviously, do not use an account for this purpose if it contains information that you want to keep private.
Snail Mail and Email
It takes longer than email to reach its intended target, but 90 PERCENT of congressional staffers say that postal mail has the power to influence an undecided member of Congress. That’s second only to visiting your representative and speaking with him or her in person. And yes, it is even more effective than email (there’s only a 2% difference in effectiveness, but hey, here’s to old-fashioned paper and ink).
One key to an effective letter — as well as an effective email — is to personalize it. Staffers want to feel like they’re talking to you just as much as you want to feel like you’re talking to them. Generic letters won’t get the job done as convincingly. Your member of Congress is likely receiving hundreds (if not thousands) of mailed items daily. Just like applying to a job or a school, the more “you” your writing is, the more it will be noticed. Try detailing how whatever you are advocating for will affect you. If it’s clean water, mention how your children love to swim in the river near your house and how important it is to you that it’s safe for them. If it’s more funding for our parks, note how long you’ve been visiting your favorite park and how you would feel if it fell into disrepair due to lack of funding. You want to appeal to the reader’s humanity. Make him or her connect with you.
Whether you send your message by mail or email, be respectful and professional, brief, and knowledgeable. Never antagonize the recipient, even if you don’t care for their position.
When you send emails through NPCA’s website, our staff helps to frame each issue and highlight the relevant legislation and effects to national parks, leaving space for you to add your own thoughts. If you’re researching an issue on your own or just want to learn more about a particular bill, you can look up the text and status of federal legislation in both houses of Congress at www.congress.gov.
One of the biggest ways to influence your member of Congress’ position on an issue is to actually discuss it in person through member-hosted events in your community. It shows that you’re dedicated enough to give your time and effort to an issue. To find out when and where the next meeting in your congressional district will take place, check out your member’s website and sign up for his or her email alerts. As with all communication with your member of Congress, be sure that you understand the issue or policy you are addressing and what you want your representatives to do, using resources such as NPCA’s website and www.congress.gov.
If you do not have time to attend a town hall meeting, don’t fret: Phone calls are another effective way to reach your legislators. When calling, keep a few things in mind to maximize your experience:
1. Call your district office before you call D.C. Your district office can be less busy, and there is a better chance that you’ll get to speak to someone. Use NPCA’s lookups for the House and Senate to get phone numbers for your members of Congress.
2. Know exactly what message you’re looking to get across, and be sure that it’s something that the particular official handles. Members and their staff deal with a lot of legislative issues simultaneously. The clearer the detail you provide, the better they’ll be able to follow up on your request.
3. Patience and politeness pay off. Remember that the people answering the phones are trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Be kind.
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Your voice is your biggest tool for advocacy. No matter how you prefer to speak out, the most important part is to keep doing it! We know all of this information may seem a bit overwhelming, so don’t worry! At NPCA, we are committed to helping you advocate for parks. Check us out on our website and stay on top of national park issues by signing up for news and alerts with NPCA at npca.org/join.
About the author
Jacob Pinkney Communications Intern
Jacob Pinkney is a Florida native attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. A full academic scholarship recipient and a published journalist, he counts his faith and his loved ones as his two biggest sources of inspiration.