Preparing for Action
Working with legislators and county officials is critical for the overall well-being of the land-grant system. 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 that relate to agriculture, families, youth, community, research, and teaching. Look carefully at newspapers, newsletters, and newscasts, and listen carefully to radio announcements, for details of legislative meetings or hearings that main stories might overlook.
- Familiarize yourself with the local legislative process. Find out the procedure for getting a proposal passed into law in your city, town, or county. Learn about when and where public hearings are held. If the meetings are open to the public, you can attend to understand more about the procedure 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 they follow. 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 about them, the better you will understand what they support and why. Learn about their interests, their tenure, and their term of office. Arrange to meet them informally, in order to establish communications. They often have more time outside of the meeting and will listen more carefully.
- Acquaint yourself with your 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.
- 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 important to you?
Working with the Media
PCARET members may be asked to talk to members of the news media. Their thoughts could appear in print through articles contributed or interviews given.
Ideally, members will have a time to gather information before the interview so that they can organize their response. To prepare, members should think about the topic, what thoughts they need to express, the reporter's angle, the deadline, and when the story will be used. By working with the reporter before the interview, the member can learn the nature of the story, other sources being interviewed, and more about the reporter's style.
There are several things PCARET members can do to help ensure a successful interview. Give the reporter undivided attention. Listen carefully. Be courteous. Give the reporter time to provide background on the story he or she is researching.
Everything said should be considered "on the record." Choose words carefully and keep the interview on time. A short, to-the-point interview is more likely to be accurately reflected than a long, rambling one.
Lead with the most important information. Reporters are not mind readers. You are responsible for presenting your issue. If the conversation goes astray, bring it back to the core message. PCARET members are serving in a resource role as advocates for extension, research, and teaching. Focus on a message that involves one of those areas.
It is best not to respond to third-hand information or to unseen documentation. Beware if the reporter begins to ask hypothetical questions. Deal with facts.
There will be occasions when it will be necessary to say, "I don't know, but let me find out and I will get back to you." No one is expected to have all the answers. It is better to check facts first and then speak. Offer to make new information available to the reporter. Photographs, graphs, or other illustrations will also enhance your story. Offer to provide these visual materials.
If there are unusual terms, technical language, or difficult names in your story, spell them for the reporter. Provide definitions when needed, and translate any acronyms used. Though familiar to you, the words might be foreign to the reporter or the readers or viewers.
Stay calm, cool, and collected at all times. Speaking in anger or frustration wastes time and can put the member or organization in a bad light. If the interview is not going well, ask to take a break and collect your thoughts. A few minutes to regroup will benefit both you and the reporter.
Most journalists will not allow the source to read the copy before it is printed, so it is usually better not to ask. However, some will allow the source to review quotes for accuracy. Asking to review attributable quotes is permissible. If there are mistakes in the quotes, inform the reporter. It is best to correct the errors in writing, but a telephone call will suffice if there is an impending deadline.
The interview is not over until the reporter is gone. Don't assume it's over just because the notebook is packed. Closing moments are recognized by journalists as the time when a subject's guard is down. Candid comments, sly asides, or afterthoughts can change the entire focus of the story. Be careful.
Finally, a word of thanks is important. If the reporter did a good job, tell them or send a note. Small gestures build relationships, and having a good relationship with the media is valuable.
COMMUNICATING WITH LEGISLATORS
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. A relationship is built through continual contact via letters, phone calls, e-mails, and visits. Remember, your objective is to achieve a result; to get support for your position on the issues. To accomplish this result, you will need to be informed and often persistent.
Elected officials are impressed by informed, personal communications from concerned constituents. They are turned off by mass-mailed, obviously organized campaigns. For that reason, you should always state the case in your own words. Don't simply repeat language that has been supplied to you. Use real examples about impact on your business, family, or community. Elected officials want to know how their decision will affect you.
There are many ways you can get to know your officials. Personal visits are 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, fund-raisers, 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.
Staff members are important to elected officials. Make certain you now the aides and support staff. Many times they determine, if, when, and where you will get to meet or talk with official.
Your group can also held legislative update meetings. The meetings can be coordinated on a local, county, partial area, or area basis. The scope will depend on the issue at hand. Some state legislators hold "third house" sessions, and others have staff who regularly schedule town meetings. They are eager to have a participative audience at these sessions. Take the opportunity to give them your card, say "thank you" or "congratulations on a job well done." They appreciate support too.
Contact by Letter
Elected officials need to 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.
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.
Form letters are tempting. They are easy to fill out because the work is done for you. But these bulk attempts don't carry much weight with the 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.
Quality counts when writing a letter. Your letter does not have to lengthy to have impact or make a point. Your issue has a better chance of being supported if you are clear, direct, and concise.
Be courteous. Elected officials appreciate honest feedback. Remember to say thanks for a job well done. Many people address the issue, but few follow up on the elected official's action in the matter.
Timing is also important. Send the 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 referred.
If time is short, use these principles and fax your letter.
Contact by Email
E-mail can be a quick, convenient way to reach your elected officials. The guidelines are similar to contacts made by letter or telephone.
The e-mail message should use the following format:
City, ST ZIP
Dear (title) (last name),
(Start your message.)
While e-mail is a fast method of relaying your interest to the decision makers, you need to remember proper "etiquette" when composing your messages.
Unlike a telephone conversation, your written words are "hard" copy. They are on-screen and can 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.
Remember that when you use e-mail, the only thing people have to go by are the words you use and the way you use them. They can't hear or see you. They have no criteria, other than your words, upon which to base their judgments. Therefore your words carry extra power in addition to immediacy. Chose them carefully.
You can find e-mail addresses for Indiana legislators in the Indiana Legislative Guide. Email addresses for Congress members can be found in the National Association of Counties booklet. Constituent publications provided through officials' offices can also be a good 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 you place the call. Use the form in this chapter to organize your thoughts.
- 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.
- 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!
- End by repeating your name and telling where you live. Offer to provide more information or serve as a resource, if you are comfortable with that role.
- Many city, town, or county officials may not have an office staff. If they do, speak to the staff assistant who handles your issue. If they don’t, most officials have answering services or voice mail. Leave your name, date, a short summary of your interest, your number, and a good time to reach you. The easier you make it, the more likely they are to return the call.
- Assistants are sometimes unavailable too. The rules are the same if you are leaving messages for them. They are a direct link to the legislator and many times do research for them.
Meeting with your Elected Officials
- Plan ahead. Sit down and think about what is most important to you and your organization. It may be very helpful to fill out the
Preparing for a Visit and Organize your Thoughts worksheets.
- Call for an appointment. Most elected officials have very full schedules. The odds of just catching them in the office are slim. Plan on 15 to 20 minutes. 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.
- Be on time. This shows elected officials that you are professional and courteous and have respect for their busy schedules. It also reinforces the importance of your meeting.
- Be direct and brief, and get to the point about your concern, preferably in the first five minutes. Elected officials appreciate your interest. Spending a lot of time in small talk reduces the time you have to tell your story. They need to know what you need, and why it is important to you. Give a personal story. Tie it back to their home area if at all possible.
- Take notes. You may be called upon to report on the meeting. You want to make certain you have the correct information.
- Be professional. Your appearance and speech reflect not only on you, but also on the organization you are representing. If you are with a small group, appoint a spokesperson to lead the discussion.
- Feel free to ask questions and be prepared to answer questions.
- Be courteous. 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. Give them an opportunity to tell you why or why not.
- If you have extra time, share your position with the staff member in charge of that area. The staff will be called up to provide more information as the decision-making time draws near.
- Follow up soon after the meeting with a short appreciation note.
Thanking Elected Officials
It is very important to thank you elected officials. This small task identifies you as not only a leader, but also as one who cares. Thank-you notes are commonly mailed after business meetings and after telephone and personal interviews.
The thank-you note serves several purposes. It expresses appreciation, summarizes your talk, and gives you a chance to any express ideas not previously mentioned. Remember that the real purpose of the note is to thank the elected official or staff member for their time. Even if you don't agree with their political views, you can express your appreciation that they took the time to either meet or talk with you.
It is appropriate to not only thank the elected official, but also any staff members who listened to you or helped you. The staff member may be the key person to carry a message for you in the future.
Timing is critical for a thank-you note to have impact. Whenever possible, the note should be written within 24 hours of the contact.
Finally, it is important for you to write legibly and to keep the note as neat as possible. If the elected official cannot read your handwriting, your time will be wasted. It is also important to place your name and home address in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope. Many offices will not open mail that has no return address.