Communicating with Elected Officials
Preparing for Action
Working with legislators and county officials is critical to the overall well-being of the land-grant university system and, specifically, Purdue CARET. Agricultural research, extension, and teaching programs need advocates to ensure that the ability to conduct and deliver the most-needed research is available is available.
Here are some points that should help you understand how to prepare to be most effective in working with decision-makers at all levels:
Pay Attention to the Local News
It is important to follow news carefully, watching for events related to agriculture, families, youth, community, research, and teaching. Look carefully at print and online editions of newspapers, print newsletters or digital e-blasts from appropriate organizations, and the newscasts and website of TV stations, and listen carefully to radio announcements for details of legislative meetings of hearings that main stories might overlook.
Familiarize Yourself with Local Legislative Processes
Learn the procedure for getting a proposal passed into law in your city, town, or county, as well as when and where public hearings are held. If meetings are open to the public, attend them to understand more about the process and the people who make decisions.
Find Out How You Can Become Involved
If you need to speak, ask how to be listed on the agenda. Ask what rules or regulations are followed. Are there volunteer opportunities as a committee member that will allow you to help study the issue?
Get to Know Your Local Politicians
The more you learn, the better you will understand what they support and why. Know their interests, their tenure, and their term of office. Arrange to meet them informally to establish communications. They often have more time outside of meetings and will more carefully listen.
Become a Familiar Face
Acquaint yourself with state senators and representatives. Become familiar with their names and interests. Find out what district you live in and who represents you. Staff members are very important. Don’t leave them out of this process.
Learn About Your Federal Representatives
Look for information about your senators and representatives. What committees are they on? What are their primary interests? What issues do they support? Is there a staff member assigned to the issue(s) important to you?
Learn About Your Elected Officials
Please download this PDF form to gather information about your local, state, and federal officials.
Building a Relationship with Your Elected Official
You know who has been elected to represent you. Now you need to build a relationship with them so they will listen to, and understand, your point of view.
Be Informed and Persistent
A relationship is built through continual contact via letters, phone calls, emails, and in-person visits. Remember: Your objective is to achieve a result and gain support for your position on the issue(s).
Always State the Case in Your Own Words
Elected officials are impressed by informed, personal communications from concerned constituents. They are turned off by mass-mailed, obviously organized campaigns. Don’t simply repeat language that has been supplied to you.
Offer Real-World Examples
Use real examples about impact on your business, family, or community. Elected officials want to know how their decision will affect you.
Be Sincere About In-Person Contacts
There are many ways you can get to know your officials. Personal visits are often a great beginning. State legislators often have more time to get to know you when the General Assembly is not in Session. Attending public forums, fundraisers, and functions shows you are interested beyond just asking for a specific vote on a topic. Read candidates’ newsletters, fill out their surveys, and learn about their interests. That will help you explain your needs in a way that is most effective for each individual elected official.
Make Certain You Know Aides and Support Staff
Staff members are important to elected officials. Many times, they determine if, when, and where you will get to meet, or talk with, an official.
Hold Legislative Update Meetings
Your group can coordinate legislative update meetings on a local, county, partial area, or area basis. The scope will depend on the issue at hand.
Attend ‘Third House’ Sessions or Town Meetings
At “third house” sessions or town meetings, legislators are eager to have a participative audience. Take the opportunity to give them your card, say “thank you,” or “congratulations on a job well done.” They appreciate support, too.
Preparing for a Visit with an Elected Official or Staff Member(s)
This form is designed to help you organize your thoughts before you meet with an elected official or staff member(s). You can download it to print.
Contact by Letter
You may think letters are a waste of time. However, letters give elected officials and staff members information to refer to as voting nears. Letters carry a lot of weight when several people address similar issues. Also, include the name and/or number of the bill in question whenever possible.
Let Them Know How Issues Affect You Personally
It is important to use your personal or business stationery with a return address. If you are a constituent, state that early in your letter.
Avoid Form Letters
Form letters are tempting and easy to fill out because the work is done for you. However, bulk letters carry little weight with elected officials. A short, to-the-point personal letter may be more effective than a stack of preprinted forms. Your letter needs to include the name and/or number of the bill whenever possible.
Focus on One Subject
Briefly explain why you, or your organization, is concerned. Be yourself as you write the letter. Let the elected official know how you feel and how this decision affects you.
Be Clear, Direct, and Concise
Your letter does not have to be lengthy to have an impact or make a point. In fact, your issue has a better chance of being supported if you are clear, direct, and concise.
Elected officials appreciate honest feedback. Remember to say thanks for a job well done. Many people address the issue(s), but few of them follow up on the elected official’s action in the matter.
Timing is Important
Send your letter shortly before or after the issue is being discussed. At the time the bill is introduced, send a copy of your letter to the chairperson of the committee to which it is referred.
It is important to display your address correctly and properly.
In a Pinch?
If time is short, abide by these principles and fax or email your letter.
Contact by Email
Email can be a quick, convenient way to reach your elected officials. The guidelines are similar to contacts made by letter or telephone.
Use the Following Format:
The email message should use the following format:
City, State ZIP
Dear (title) (last name),
(Start your message.)
Maintain Proper Etiquette
While email is a fast method of relaying your interest to decision-makers, you need to remember proper etiquette when composing messages.
Unlike a telephone conversation, written words are “hard” copy – onscreen, and able to be re-read, saved, and printed for further study. Your communication should be brief, and you should use good vocabulary, proper grammar, and accurate spelling.
Choose Your Words Carefully
The words you use, and the way you use them, are all people have to go by in an email. They can’t see or hear you, and have no other criteria upon which to base their judgments. Therefore, your words carry extra power in addition to immediacy. Choose them carefully.
Know Where to Find Email Addresses
Websites through officials’ offices are often the best source for the most current information.
Contact by Telephone
There are times when it’s just not possible to write a letter, yet your message needs to be heard by a legislator. A quick phone call can be effective in delivering a simple message. To give your phone call impact, here are a few tips.
Plan your thoughts and make notes before placing the call. Use the form on this site to organize your thoughts.
Keep it Simple
Keep your message short and simple. If there is a bill number, remind him/her of the number and explain your position in a few sentences.
Don’t Expect a Legislator
You probably won’t get to speak to a senator or representative directly. Ask to speak to the legislative assistant who handles the issue you are interested in. If you do get to speak to the legislator, you’re having a great day!
Know With Whom to Speak
Many city, town, or county officials may not have an office staff. But if they do, speak to the staff assistant who handles your issue(s). Legislative assistants are sometimes unavailable, too, but they are a direct link to legislators and many times do research for them.
Leave a Message if Necessary
If you reach answering services or voicemail, leave your name, the date, a short summary of your interest, your phone number, and a good time to reach you. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to receive a returned phone call.
End by repeating your name and where you live. Offer to provide more information or, if you are comfortable with this role, to serve as a resource.
Meeting with Your Elected Officials
Fill out the “Preparing for a Visit” form on this website, or sit down and organize your thoughts. Think about what is most important to you and to Purdue CARET.
Call for an Appointment
Most elected officials’ schedules are very full. The odds of just catching them in the office are slim. Plan on no more than 15 to 20 minutes, and if you can’t meet with your elected official, arrange to meet with a staff member instead. Staff can relay your message to the proper official.
Arrive on Time
This shows elected officials that you are professional, courteous, and have respect for their busy schedules. It also reinforces the importance of your meeting.
Be Direct, Brief, and To-the-Point
You should get to the point about your concern, preferably in the first five minutes. Spending too much time making small talk reduces the time you have to tell your story. Let them know what you need and why it’s important to you. Give a personal story. Tie it to their home area if possible.
You may be asked to report on the meeting and want to ensure you have correct information.
Your appearance and speech reflect not only on you but also on Purdue CARET. If you are with a small group, appoint a spokesperson to lead the discussion.
Ask, and Answer, Questions
Your questions can indicate curiosity, and curiosity helps show elected officials you’re interested. But also be thoroughly prepared to answer their questions for you.
Shake his/her hand when you meet and upon ending the conversation. Thank them for their time and interest. Ask if you can count on their support and give them an opportunity to say why or why not.
Share Your Position with Staff Members
If time permits, share your position with the staff member(s) in charge of your issue’s area. They will be called upon to provide more information as the decision-making time draws near.
Be Sure to Follow Up
Follow up soon after the meeting with a short note of appreciation.
Thanking Elected Officials
It is very important to thank elected officials, or their staff members, for their time. This small task identifies you as not only a leader, but also as one who cares. You should mail thank-you notes after business meetings, and after telephone or personal interviews. Thank-you notes express appreciation, summarize your talk, and give you a chance to convey ideas not previously mentioned.
Remember the Reason of a Thank-You
The real purpose of a thank-you note is to show appreciation for the time an elected official or staff member(s) gave you. Even if you disagree with their political views, you can show gratitude that they took the time to either meet or talk with you.
Thank Staff Members, Too
It is appropriate to not only thank the elected official, but also any staff member(s) who listened to, or helped, you. This person may be a key person to carry a message for you in the future.
Timing is Critical
Whenever possible, write your note within 24 hours of the contact so the note has optimal impact.
Write Legibly and Use Your Address
Keep the note as neat as possible. If your handwriting is illegible, it’s a waste of time. Also, place your name and return address in the envelope’s upper-left-hand corner. Many offices will not open mail that has no return address.
Working with the Media
Purdue CARET members may be asked to talk to the news media in print, TV, radio, or online formats. Think about the topic, what you need to say, and the story’s angle, deadline, and timing. Always listen carefully, be courteous, and give the reporter time to provide background on the story.
Consider Everything on the Record
Unless you explicitly request it before the interview begins and the reporter explicitly accepts your request, everything you say should be considered on the record. Choose your words carefully.
Keep Interviews Concise
Reporters are more likely to accurately reflect to-the-point interviews than long, rambling ones.
Lead with the Most Important Information
Reporters are not mind readers. You are responsible for clearly presenting your issue upfront.
Keep the Conversation on Task
If a conversation goes astray, bring it back to Purdue CARET’s core message as a resource for advocacy.
Deal with the Facts You Know
It is best not to respond to third-hand information, unseen documents, or hypothetical questions.
Be OK with Not Having All the Answers
It’s OK to say, “I don’t know, but let me find out and get back to you.” It is better to check facts first and then make new information available. If possible when following up, use visual materials.
Don’t Assume What People Know
The familiar to you may be foreign to others. Give definitions. Translate acronyms. Spell names.
Always Stay Calm, Cool, and Collected
Anger or frustration wastes time and casts you or Purdue CARET in a bad light. If an interview isn’t going well, ask for a short break to collect your thoughts and regroup.
Ask to Review Your Quotes for Accuracy
Most reporters don’t allow sources to read copy before it runs. However, you may ask to review your quotes. If there are mistakes, inform them in writing or, if a deadline looms, by phone.
The Interview Isn’t Over Until the Reporter Leaves
Journalists regard closing moments as a time when a subject’s guard is down. Candid comments, sly asides, or afterthoughts can change the entire focus of their story. Use caution at these times.
Offer a Word of Thanks
If the reporter did a good job, let them know. It’s a small gesture, but it builds a relationship, and having good relationships with media is valuable.