Getting your Message Through is Your Highest Priority

By William D. McColl, Director of National Affairs, The Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, Washington D.C. (2001)

As a professional lobbyist, I would like to make some suggestions about how to respond to an offensive letter from legislators, or help you as you begin communicating in letters and visits to your federal and state legislators.

If your legislator has made you angry, and you respond in anger, you have taken their bait. An angry 'rant' in response, verbal or in writing, allows them to dismiss you. Your job is to make it extremely hard for them to dismiss you.

Essentially, the reason for any contact with a legislator or a legislative staff should be to further your goal. When you write a letter, or visit your leaders, think carefully about the goal of your communication.

Put yourself into a legislator's shoes and ask some basic questions of your goals. Would this communication have support from other constituents of this leader? Are there other people with the same issue and requests? If not, then perhaps your issue or request isn't reasonable, or something that has enough support to interest a legislator.

One thing you will need to do is develop several lines of arguments. If you are talking to a conservative, your message is different than if you are talking to a liberal, or to a moderate or to a libertarian for that matter. Considering all you know about your legislator is important. You may have initial correspondence, or news quotes that reflect their opinions about your issue.

If you 'strike-out' with a message, go back and consider why it failed. In light of the reasons why it failed, try to further communicate your position a better way. If you can't think of a better way to communicate your message, do not respond angrily. Let things calm down before you go back to visit, or write again.

Give some thought to how you can successfully reestablish lines of communication. Whatever you do, the very first rule of lobbying (well at least my first rule) is that you never burn your bridges. Respect people, making the best argument to them; your message is the highest priority. It is more important than getting 'something off your chest.'

Since September 11th, Americans have been told that they are at war, that they need to accept a reduction in their civil liberties, and that they must stand united. Anything that detracts from those goals, may appear divisive and will have the effect of placing us in the category of "the enemy."

We must be extremely cautious in all of our actions and in our letters, but this does not mean that we stop lobbying visits and letters to our government's leaders.

One thing that I've learned is to lower my expectations. There are a lot of people on all sides of every issue. You may need to accept that it might take years to demonstrate responsibility and win legislators over. Have others make your case for you or with you, enlisting family and friends to write letters on your behalf, or take them with you when you visit your leaders to illustrate you have support for your request or issue.

Show them that you have a large (preferably responsible) and active constituency behind you.