“Constituent-to-legislator” is the most powerful communication and there is no substitute for in-person meetings. Just by being present you show an undeniable sincerity that no email can replicate. In addition, face-to-face meetings lay the foundation for future communications with your legislator and they may be more likely to take your calls when they are available. The best time to meet with a legislator is when there is not an issue pressing; in other words, simply to build a relationship so that if/when issues arise there are existing lines of communication.
Chance Meetings with Legislators
Legislators grocery shop, attend baseball games and see their doctors when they are home in their districts. Don’t be afraid to intrude on their personal time. Legislators are public figures and they absolutely expect and welcome encounters with the public. Introducing yourself and speaking on a legislative issue is a great way for the lawmaker to get the pulse on the feelings from “back home.”
Making Phone Calls to Lawmakers and Their Staff
Sometimes, a bill is coming up to vote quickly and a phone call is necessary in lieu of in-person or written correspondence. Before you call, write down the issues you want to cover. Once you have the legislator or their staff on the phone, first identify yourself as a constituent, being polite and courteous. State your position (whether opposing or supporting a piece of legislation) and stay on-message. Be prepared to spend only a few minutes on the telephone and know there is a possibility of speaking to an aide if the legislator is out of their office. Your personal and compelling story should usually be reserved for written correspondence. Remember to request a response, leaving your email address and phone number which ensure a degree of accountability. Thank them for their time and remember to follow up with a letter and any information they requested or that you promised.
Personal meetings are one of the best ways to effectively communicate with your legislators so take advantage of every opportunity to become better acquainted with them. Relationships can evolve quickly from social gatherings, charitable events or political functions. The best time for personal meetings and establishing rapport is when the legislature is not in session but anytime is a good time.
You can call and arrange an appointment or invite the legislator to your facility (more information on Giving Public Officials a Tour of Your Practice, Facility or Surgery Center). Introduce yourself, stating where you live and that you’re a physician in the district.
When meeting with your legislator and discussing your issues, here are some tips to guide you through your visit and conversation:
- Get to know them ahead of time. Do a little research to find which committees the legislator meets with and if they have any connection to your issue or your field. Have they engaged in other legislative matters pertinent to your issue? Can you discover other community activities that may open communications such as civic clubs, sports, etc?
- Be familiar with your issue. Thoughtful and knowledgeable awareness of all of the factors is critical to establishing that you are an expert on your issue.
- Rehearse your presentation. If you have 15 minutes to make your pitch then you should spend 30 minutes the day before preparing the best arguments to say first. In your rehearsal, remember your personal story trumps data. Provide strong stories or arguments for your issue and if warranted, bring a fact sheet with key points to leave at the conclusion of the meeting.
- Arrive promptly. Offices are small at the State House with little waiting room and space may not accommodate early arrivals.
- Build rapport with small talk but quickly get down to business. Constituent meetings can last fifteen minutes but be prepared for the legislator to interrupt for phone calls or being called to the floor for a vote.
- Have a specific “ask.” Specific requests with a no/yes option create a metric the legislator can be measured by. It is helpful if you explain both sides of the issue and why your position is the best. Ask for a commitment and listen for the response.
- Stay on message. Do not digress by discussing irrelevant issues and don’t let the conversation wander by introducing other issues. Ask for advice and insights into the best strategies to achieve your goal.
- Minimize the documents given to lawmakers. Legislators are pressed on time and may not read the information given cover to cover. Succinctly summarize the issues and offer more materials which can be delivered on request.
- Thank them for their time. Send a follow-up correspondence or provide any requested materials.
- Provide feedback to Medical Association lobbyists. It is essential advocates and lobbyist have close coordination on the efforts made regarding the issues and lobbyists can remind legislators of their constituent’s concerns if they begin to waiver.
- Follow up. Even if the legislator promised to call you in a week, the responsibility falls on the advocate to follow up. When you call and follow-up, you essentially tell the legislator that you are not going anywhere.
Remember this, if the legislator doesn’t agree with you, don’t threaten and don’t be ugly. You likely still have time to win them to your side.