Tips and Tools for Talking with a Legislator (or other government official)!
1. Know Your Goal
There are several reasons why you might want to communicate with your local legislators, but each reason has slightly different goals. Figure out what you want most in this interaction; even if you don’t get what you’re asking for, recognize that simply turning up in print or in person makes a difference.
- Relationship Building: Deliver an invitation to visit, drop off information that the legislator might find useful, congratulate or thank him or her on a recent achievement.
- Ask the legislator to support a specific piece of legislation (or several). Make a clear request for a commitment to action. Leave behind information on the issue if you can, with your business card and a written reminder of your request.
- Ask the legislator for other kinds of support: signing or writing a letter of support for a grant application, being a speaker at an upcoming event, interceding on behalf of your museum with other officials. Again, leave behind your contact information and a summary of your request.
2. Know Your Story
We are more than the sum of our mission statements and attendance figures, but it doesn’t hurt to have those available. What really counts is how concise, clear, and relevant your story is to ‘the ask’ you are making. Have the facts, avoid overblown rhetoric, but also let your joy and pride in your work show. There are people behind every policy, and you want them to connect with you and your cause.
Prepare and practice: Who are you? What brings you here today? Why is it important? What is it you want the legislator to do? (Use the “Work Your Words” worksheet to hone your story. Download here.)
If you can be succinct and sincere, your words will have the most impact. If you get an instant ‘yes,’ then great! If they seem ‘on the fence,’ ask if they need other information, and if you can leave some with them to help them make a decision. If they ask you a question you can’t answer, don’t make it up, but offer to get them the information they need. Then do it (see step 5).
3. Do Your Research
What do you know about your representatives? What issues matter most to them? A little research before the meeting can be really helpful in shaping your approach. Does your representative care about small businesses (as so many museums are)? Is your state senator proud of her record on education issues? Are either of them on record as being supporters of arts and culture?
Make a few notes that you can refer to, if there are recent bills they’ve worked on or other initiatives for which you can thank them to create common ground. Pitch your request in terms of the issues they value most, if you can.
Know as much as you can about the request you are making, as well. If there’s a specific bill you want them to support, who’s sponsoring it? What impact will it have in their district? This is where your numbers can really add up.
4. Make an Appointment
Legislators, city officials, and their support staff have dozens of meetings every day. While most offices do have an open door policy and you *can* just drop by, you can be more assured of their attention if you call or email to set up an appointment first.
Never called for an appointment before? Here’s a quick step-by-step guide:
How to Set Up a Meeting with your Legislator (or other local official)
- Make sure you are calling the people most likely to care about your organization and cause: the ones who represent your district! You can find the legislators for both your home district and your organization’s district using the links listed below.
- Calling usually works better than email, as you can get a more immediate sense of the official’s schedule.
- Start with your name, your hometown (it always helps to identify that you’re a constituent), and your purpose for calling (hoping to speak to X about Y topic).
- Be polite! Ask when the official might be available, and if she or he is not, whether you could meet with someone on their staff instead. (Government officials have a lot of meetings and do a lot of traveling, so you may or may not get to speak with them directly; however, it is the role of their staff to communicate what is most interesting and important to them, so don’t underestimate the staff!)
- As state level legislators often have both a state house and a local office, you can offer to meet at whichever location or date best suits both parties. (The same goes for national level elected officials; if you’re not in Washington, DC, they still usually have someone staffing a local office you can reach.)
- Repeat the meeting time and place back before you hang up to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Be sure to get the number of the office (and possibly specific building), as well as the name and phone number of the person you’re speaking to, in case you need to call back.
Locate your state legislator:
- Connecticut General Assembly (http://www.cga.ct.gov/asp/menu/cgafindleg.asp)
- Maine: Find your Senator (http://legisweb1.mainelegislature.org/wp/senate/find-your-senator/), Find your Representative (website broken?!)
- Massachusetts General Court (https://malegislature.gov/People/Search)
- New Hampshire: Find your Representative (http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/house/members/wml.aspx), Find your Senator (http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/Senate/members/wml.aspx)
- Rhode Island General Assembly (https://sos.ri.gov/vic/)
- Vermont (http://legislature.vermont.gov/people/)
5. Follow Up!
If your meeting goes well, follow up with a thank you message to the legislator and whatever staff you spoke to. Remind them of the commitment they made to your issue, and include an invitation to visit your organization next time they’re in the area.
If your meeting does not go well, follow up with a thank you anyway. There’s always next time.
If you promised to get further information on an issue and get it back to them, do so as soon as possible, and include it in your thank you message. This is about more than simple politeness; it turns you from a supplicant to an ally. You are helping them do their jobs, so they can help you with yours.