Communicating with Your Lawmakers
Working With Elected Officials
The SPI government affairs staff works with legislators around the country on your behalf. Despite our best efforts, though, we cannot make ourselves known to each and every one of the thousands of state lawmakers and hundreds of Members of Congress.
Most importantly, legislators listen to, and are influenced by, their constituents. The reason is easily understood. Politicians listen to those who elect them, the people who in essence have the power to hire and fire them.
Industry efforts are most effective when they are based on good working relationships between constituents and their lawmakers. That means letters, phone calls and office visits from people who speak from personal knowledge and experience about their genuine concerns on a particular issue.
Following is some basic information on ways plastics company representatives can communicate about the industry to lawmakers. These techniques and approaches can and should be used to reach local, state and federal legislators.
Getting to Know Your Lawmakers
It’s important that you to get to know your lawmakers. The more familiar they are with you, your business and the industry, the more responsive they will be should you need to communicate on a particular legislative issue.
Although developing a relationship with your elected officials is an important part of industry’s overall program to increase its involvement in policy-making decisions, you don’t have to wait for an urgent legislative issue to meet with your lawmaker. Politicians are happy to talk to business people. After all, you are their constituen, and they should know who you are and have some background on your business.
Meeting in your community with your lawmaker presents an ideal opportunity to become acquainted. The following are examples of opportunities to introduce yourself.
- Town Hall Meetings – Legislators hold these public meetings regularly to get feedback from constituents. Call your lawmaker’s district office to find out when a town meeting is scheduled.
- Business/Volunteer Group Meetings – Lawmakers appreciate an opportunity to address groups of business people. If you belong to your local chamber of commerce, Kiwanis, Lions or Rotary club, or another appropriate civic group, invite your lawmakers to speak at a meeting. This will allow you to develop a relationship and also ask questions regarding his or her position on your issues.
- Plant Tours – Plant tours are an excellent way for you to represent your company and the industry to the public. They are a good way to get to know your lawmaker, but they also can be given to school groups and the news media. Plant tours provide these groups with one-on-one exposure to real jobs, real people and real concerns. Following are some tips on planning a plant tour for a lawmaker.
- Contact the scheduling secretary in your lawmaker’s local, district or state office to find out his or her availability when home. This person will coordinate the schedule with the state capitol or Washington office.
- Explain why a tour of your plant is important to the lawmaker. You might want to stress what you manufacture, how many people you employ, how long you have been in business, how much money you pay in taxes and other facts of interest.
- Include a meeting with your company’s managers in your planning. Whether it’s a luncheon in the conference room or a brief chat in the president’s office, this is the chance for them to express their legislative interests and concerns.
- Include your workers in the plant tour. Be sure that both hourly workers and salaried employees have a chance to meet the lawmaker. If yours is a union shop, you may want to include the shop steward in the tour.
- Find out what the representative would like to get out of the tour. Are there any special interests or concerns that the legislator would like to discuss? Would he or she like to address your employees? Find out and include these interests in your plans.
- On the day of the tour, stick to your plan. Lawmakers are on tight schedules and often have multiple events planned for the day. You should remain flexible, however, in case your visitor is late, decides to leave early or stays longer than planned.
- After the tour, follow up with a thank-you letter to the lawmaker. You also might want to include a list of the people who participated in the meeting.
Supporting Your Candidates For Election
Supporting a candidate for office is a valuable service you can provide and an excellent way for you to get to know an incumbent or a challenger on a personal basis. To support and work for the candidate of your choice, you can:
- Volunteer to work on the campaign – This may include distributing literature, making phone calls or scheduling the candidate to speak to volunteer groups to which you belong.
- Contribute money to the campaign – If you choose to contribute money, you will first need to find out what laws govern such contributions. State laws vary greatly and are changing all of the time.
- Attend a fund-raiser – These events are critical to the financing of an election campaign. Encourage your business associates to attend, as well.
- Organize a fund-raiser – Organizing a fund-raiser is a significant service you can provide for the candidate of your choice. You may want to organize the event or work through a local business political action committee.
How To Contact Your Lawmakers
Occasionally, SPI calls on its members to take action on a particular legislative issue important to our industry. We track legislation at all levels of government and will provide you with the information you need to communicate industry’s position. You may be asked to write a letter, make a phone call or meet with your lawmakers on important issues to your business and the industry. Your help in contacting your lawmakers is a critical element of industry’s broad communications effort.
To help make these communications most effective, following are some general guidelines you may want to follow.
Tips on Writing a Letter
Most elected officials hear from their constituents through written correspondence. Letters are extremely important and every one is read and answered. Although faxing letters often is preferred in business communications, letters to lawmakers should be mailed unless they are time sensitive. When writing a letter:
- Be brief – Legislators receive an enormous amount of mail. Chances for a quick response are improved by keeping letters to one page.
- Identify yourself – If you have met the legislator or have corresponded before, mention it. Use company letterhead if possible. This will identify you as both a constituent and as a key member of the community.
- Address your letter properly – For the addresses of your state lawmakers, check the government pages of your phone book. Letter to lawmakers should be addressed as follows:
The Honorable __________________________________
(State) Senate or
(State) House of Representative/House of Delegates/(State) Assembly
Dear Senator ____________________________________
or Representative/Delegate/Assembly(wo)man _________________________________
The Honorable __________________________________
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510 or
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Senator ___________________________________
or Representative _____________________________________
- State the issue clearly and concisely – When writing, get to the point. Don’t assume a legislator knows about the issue. When writing about a piece of legislation, refer to it by using the bill number and describe it by mentioning the content and sponsor.
- Be polite – Regardless of your personal feeling toward an individual or their political party, courtesy and respect should be used when writing. Always thank legislators for their time and consideration.
- Use a positive, constructive tone – Don’t complain about a situation. Instead, recommend actions for improvement. Present your best arguments in favor of your position. You needn’t remind a lawmaker of electoral consequences.
- Stress local and personal implications – Illustrate how the legislation would affect the local economy and give personal examples. Always keep the human dimension in mind, such as the effect of the legislation on consumers, workers and employees. It is very important to link your interest with the interests of the average American.
- Ask for a reply – In closing a letter, ask the legislator for a written reply including his or her position on the issue and what action will be taken.
- Follow up – When a lawmaker supports your position and votes your way, send a follow-up letter expressing your appreciation. If disappointed in a vote, communicate that as well.
When you respond to an SPI request for a communication, please fax a copy of your letter to the SPI Government Affairs Department at 202/296-7281.
Tips On Making Telephone Calls
Telephone calls can be an effective tool for communicating, especially when there is no time to write a letter or when action is needed just prior to an important vote. In fact, enough calls at the right time from the right people have been known to change the votes of many legislators.
Constituent calls typically are directed to the lawmaker’s staff person responsible for the issue. Do not be offended if this is the case. Staff members handle issues on a daily basis and likely will be able to provide more information and feedback. The staff acts as the lawmaker’s eyes and ears on all issues and regularly informs him or her on inquiries and concerns of constituents.
As with letter writing, there are several things to remember when making a telephone call to a lawmaker’s office:
- Know what to say – Know your position on the issue. Prepare notes on your message and, if possible, practice the message with a business associate. If your call is about a bill, refer to it by name and describe its subject matter.
- Keep the message simple – State your name and your purpose for calling. Get right to the point and do not stray from it. If you have had previous contact with the legislator or the office, mention that when you introduce yourself.
- Give local examples – Whenever possible, refer to local businesses and bring the issue home to the lawmaker. Communicate why the issue is important in your state or legislative district.
- Be positive and constructive – In a phone call, it may be especially tempting to complain or criticize a particular governmental policy. However, stressing the positive aspects of the issue will get better and faster results.
- Never threaten – Remain calm and courteous at all times, and do not make threats about who you are and the power you wield back home.
- Ask for a response – Staff members may not always have an immediate response. In such cases, request a written response from your representative.
For your lawmakers’ phone numbers, check the government pages in your phone book.
Tips on Meeting With Your Lawmakers
The best place to meet with your lawmakers is in his or her home district. These meetings are an opportunity for you to introduce your company and your industry in a neutral context away from the heat of a legislative battle.
Most state legislators and members of Congress are in their home districts frequently, usually every Friday through Monday and during legislative recesses. To request a "back home" meeting, first check with the legislator’s scheduling secretary to find out his or her availability. Those seeking a meeting may be referred to a state or district office to schedule an appointment.
Once a meeting date has been set, follow up with a confirmation letter with a copy to the staff contact. After the meeting, follow up with a thank-you letter to the lawmaker and copy the staff contact. You also might want to include a list of the people who participated in the meeting.
On some occasions, a legislator may be unavailable to meet with you and will arrange for you to talk to a staff member who handles the issue. Meeting with a staff person is similar to meeting with a legislator, but there are some differences. The staff person generally will have more time and the meeting will be less formal. You can be assured that the staff person will pass along information about your discussion to the lawmaker.
Following are some guidelines for a successful meeting:
- Select a spokesperson – If there are others in your group, choose a lead person to do most of the talking.
- Introduce yourself – Even if you’ve met before, state your name, company name and business location. If others are with you, introduce them, as well.
- Respect the legislator’s time – Informal chatting is okay (especially if the legislator initiates it) but get down to business within the first couple of minutes.
- Know your issue – State your purpose in meeting with the lawmaker at the beginning and say it clearly and concisely. Do not mislead or discuss a topic that may get you or others in your industry into trouble. If you are unsure of an answer to a question raised by the lawmaker, simply indicate that you will get back with a response at a later time. Refer to legislation by bill number and subject matter.
- Keep the tone positive and constructive – Make it easy for your lawmaker to support your position by giving good reasons to do so. An explanation of how the issue would help the people back home can be a powerful way to illustrate the point.
- Leave fact sheets – Leave the legislator or a staff person with printed information after the meeting. Then follow up periodically for updates on the member’s actions..
- Be polite – Above all, be courteous when meeting with a lawmaker. Your role is to explain and inform, not to threaten or attack. Always thank the lawmaker for the meeting and follow up with a thank you note.