Guest post by Robert Arco, of The Common Truth.
One of the favorite “excuses” we hear from patriots and activists for inaction is the preconception that their elected officials don’t listen to them. In many ways, this axiom has been proven to be true as we have all had experience with the “deaf” elected who seem to decide for us. Part of the issue, however, is not the inability to listen but how the feedback is presented. If you go to a politician’s canned website and fill out a contact form, chances are pretty high that you are just noise, and the response will often be a form letter often directly opposite of what you stated.
There are better ways to deal with politicians but first you must understand your place in the grand scheme of constituency. These people receive hundreds, if not thousands of contacts each day depending on the level of office they hold. Using simple email is ineffective as they have staff who scans and replies on their behalf based on their already predetermined position. You are a lone voice in a sea of voices using a fairly ineffective medium of contact. It is similar to applying for a job at Boeing or Microsoft. They receive thousands of resumes every day and use screening software to weed through the volume. Less than 1% are even read by a human being and a smaller number acted on. The key is how to maximize contact and be noticed.
First, like going for a job, you need to get on the inside. That means one of several things. The first is do you have a referral from someone they know and respect? Remember, they don’t know you. Just because you live in their district or have even voted for them doesn’t mean there is a solid connection. A referral leverages an established connection and allows you to build a new one.
The method of contact is then important to establish the connection and as we all know, unsolicited email is rarely a way to make friends or garner influence. The best start is a phone call. You will most certainly be answered by an admin or aide but therein lies your first establishment of that connection you are seeking.
When making the call, be sure you are already clear on what you wish to say. Practice the call if you must and it is okay to work from notes. You want to sound articulate, calm and certainly polite. The goal here is to have that first impression with their “front line” as reasonable. Tell the person you wish to speak to your elected official and what you wish to discuss. They will most likely ask you for more information and this is your opportunity for a 2 minute sales pitch. Again, clear, concise, polite and engaging are important. This is also a good time to mention any referral you may have.
Now, in many cases this person probably has a canned response knowing how the candidate feels on a subject and may try to move you off the call by stating the position. This is usually followed by the aide telling you “they will be sure to pass along your comments”. This is the last they will ever think of you and if you get charged for minutes on your phone, you have now wasted them. Don’t let them have closure on the conversation. After they have stated the politician’s position on a topic, if it is in opposition to what you are trying to articulate, then do not let them get to the “brush off”. Instead, it is time to put your foot in the door before it shuts.
This is the point when you want contact to move to the next level. You should tell the admin or aide that you really would like to speak to the politician because you have a perspective to offer on the topic. Firmly but politely ask for either a call back, conference call or a face to face meeting.
If you arrange a call back, always ask when you can expect to be contacted. This is often my least favorite option because it relies on the person to try and arrange a call back and for the politician to decide they want to call you. I would say from experience, the call back option has 70-30 odds (against) of success and usually results in you calling back on subsequent days to ask why you haven’t received a call. You know the static answer will be that the person has been very busy but is aware you called. Trust me, they are not aware.
The best option is to put the burden of tangible action out there immediately. This means getting a conference call scheduled on their calendar or better yet; a face to face meeting. Both of these are important steps because as mentioned earlier, now is your opportunity to establish that tangible connection. It is even more solid if you have a referral to use so that they have a small preconception of your validity as a voice worth speaking to on a topic.
Once you have this meeting scheduled, via phone or in person, it is again quite important to have your message down in a concise and clear manner. You should be able to state the issue, why you are for or against it, what are the impacts in your view and more important, what the politician should adopt that view. This is the most important selling piece because ultimately; whatever decision they make is reflective of them and like anyone else, they wish to be seen in the best light.
The only way to accomplish the message successfully is first, do your research on the subject and on the politician. Find some information on what they have supported and why. Finding things you can agree with buys you positive leverage which I will expand on.
Whenever a conversation is begun with a new person, it should always start on a positive. You start with who you are, what you do and very briefly, what the topic will be. This establishes your credibility (not 100% but takes it much higher than zero) and is where you begin. Next, if possible, mention something they have already done that you agree with and a very short reason why you agreed. You have now established a measure of respect and in turn, have shown them that on face value, you give them a measure of credibility.
Now it comes time to present your message or concern. Use facts vs opinion in a heavy on the facts ratio as much as possible. Give examples where the topic works or does not work. Offer your alternative option because in politics as in business, it is insufficient to just say “there is a problem”. Many times that fact is undisputed but the real demonstration of credibility is showing the problem, offering a solution and articulating the impact of that solution. That impact should also include the response the politician is likely to receive from the rest of the constituency.
The conversation may lead to a give and take where they present their side which may be opposed to what you think. Show respect for their opinion but have some idea of how to refute their side. In all cases be respectful. Be sure to ask them if the opinion they hold is theirs or comes from feedback in the constituency. This question should be handled tactfully as you do not wish to make them feel like you are accusing them of not listening to their voters. Instead, if you cannot get it across, ask them if they would be willing to meet with others in their district that feel as you do. This is a powerful tactic.
When you engage them to speak with others, you have done two things. You have established that you are not a lone voice but rather a representative of many voices. Second, more people equates to votes and support. The votes potentially affect their future (never threaten to vote them out) and the support is really leverage they can use when making a decision on a vote. Very often, their decision is made by the party and small voices. In many cases though, support from their constituency helps them solidify their decision as what the people asked for.
Now that you have established an initial connection, you need to solidify that connection. Keep in contact with that person on various occasions and you can invite them to events that may be mutually beneficial. If you are truly aligned on fundamentals, this relationship can be long last and also lead to new political connections as you now have a new referral source.
All of this is predicated on dealing with someone who you can work with on a variety of levels. In my next article, I will talk about leveraging activism to persuade hostile political opposition.