What is expected of you when advocating to U.S. Government officials. A best practices list from people who have done it successfully...
Good Afternoon Senator… How to meet with your Legislators
One of the greatest rights and resources we have as a citizen or representative of a professional organization is the opportunity to present our ideas, opinions and visions on legislative issues to our Elected Officials on their home court. That’s right, you can make appointments to meet with any legislator when scheduled according to their schedule policy to discuss issues that affect you or your organization. Preparing for and presenting in such a formal gathering can seem like a daunting and impossible task, one better left for lobbyists and lawyers. Does this sound familiar: Bob, we need you to go to Washington DC next week for government action day to represent us on our 2017 action items. We need you to speak to a few Senators and report back on your trip. Bob says “You want me to do what??? Or worse your group is getting ready for a “Day at the State Capital” and they ask for volunteers to represent your organization and then there’s crickets?
As an individual or group the prospect of beating the challenges of a successful meeting with elected officials can easily be met by planning, preparation and professionalism. What is on your agenda, what’s your action items? How do you schedule meetings and who do you meet with? What do I do once inside? Finally, what are your expectations and how do I know if I was successful? These are all great questions! I have laid out some simple guidelines for planning your visit as well what you should do once inside face to face with a Legislator. If you are well prepared and have planned your visit appropriately you will find your visit to be rewarding and fun as well eager to return for future visits.
When meeting with elected officials the process is the same with US Senators and Congressmen and State Senators and Representatives. The template you use to prepare, schedule and conduct your visit is unchanged regardless of who you wish to meet. You want to start your planning 60 days or more in advance, this gives you ample time to do your research and set your appointments. One thing to remember, anyone can meet with their elected officials it’s how you plan, prepare and present yourself that will make you a success.
What is your agenda
Your agenda is the key reason for your visit. Legislation is either being drafted to be put into law or a current law is in effect that impacts your organization or you want your voice to be heard. When drafting your agenda have one or two key issues with 3 action items that if followed would have a positive effect on your organization. Be specific, the last thing you want to do is be all over the map and they get lost in the conversation. Be brief, you only get 15-30 minutes to convey your agenda. Base your information on facts not assumptions. Be realistic, don’t ask for the world and be willing to compromise.
What Elected Official Do I Meet With
Both State and Federal legislators have a general and individual website where you can review legislator data, how they vote, committee appointments, Bills they sponsor, contact information, and a complete Bio. For Federal Legislators use www.house.gov and www.senate.gov , for State Legislators go to the State General Assembly website for your state such as Illinois www.ilga.gov.
Select the best possible official(s) that you believe will have the greatest impact on your agenda. Do your research, a good example of selecting the right Legislator: Let’s say your issue pertains to Emergency Medical Services (EMS) licensing, locate the legislators that are or have been Firemen or Paramedics as a profession, then see what they have done for EMS. Put these officials at the top of your list as they would have a better understanding on your issues and most likely the greatest impact. Make sure you visit legislators in your district regardless of your agenda!
How do I schedule an appointment
There are several ways to schedule appointments for your visit. After you have decided who you need to get in front of you can schedule an appointment at their local home office or in their office at the Capital. To get the best bang for your buck schedule your meetings while they are in session at the capital, this way you can set as many appointments in one day. Session dates are posted on the above mentioned websites.
On their official websites they will list their home office and Capital office address with contact information. Call their office and ask to speak to the scheduler or the Legislative Assistant to schedule an appointment. You can also email them to schedule an appointment, when emailing use the appointment request form on the websites if available. DO NOT use US Postal system to mail them an appointment request as it will not be delivered to their office as part of post 9/11 terrorism concerns.
Request a date and time for your appointment. Allow for only 15-30 minutes for each meeting and be sure to schedule 45 minutes between appointments. When in DC the offices are in different buildings and it’s a bit of a walk and sometimes your legislators run a little behind. When you make the appointment be sure to give them information on your agenda as this gives them an idea what to research so they are informed when speaking to you. Follow up 3 days prior to confirm each appointment.
Planning and Preparation
Actors don’t film on the first take, singers don’t record on the first set and you shouldn’t be hearing your agenda for the first time in their office! Know your material inside and out, rehearse it, then rehearse it again, then do it several times in front of your peers. Look like and speak like you want it, not like you need it! It is very important that you know what you are talking about and it must be based on facts. If you stumble around with your words or say something that is not true they will not take you serious. You don’t have to be Shakespeare but you have to convey your information in a manner that shows compassion, conviction, and professionalism.
Be prepared to answer questions. When you do your research look at all the options and understand there are many viewpoints that can be discussed. You can rest assured whoever you are speaking with will be very prepared on your subject and may know the information better than you.
Bring facts and figures to support your topic. They say 86% of statistics are created within 10 seconds of saying them. Make sure your stats are correct and have references to support your information.
Have a summary prepared, be prepared for questions, and have a plan to follow up in a few weeks.
What to do and what not to do
So many questions are asked about what to do during your meeting from what do I wear to how I follow up after I leave. Here a few answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:
Dress to impress but this is not prom. Men should wear a coat and tie, women a nice pant suit or casual professional dress or skirt. If you are representing an organization then be proud, wear that dress uniform it’s very appropriate. If you look unprofessional you will be taken as unprofessional.
If going with a group 3-5 people per visit is appropriate. There is limited seating and standing room.
Arrive to your appointment 10 minutes prior and check in with the office staff. If you are running late make sure you call to see if a late arrival is ok or to reschedule.
There is no walking in unannounced or going door to door, you must have an appointment or a scheduled event. In DC there is no door to door visits but some state capitals have action days where their doors are open to visit on an open plan
Spit out your gum or mint before you get there.
Don’t wear too much cologne or perfume. Don’t smell like cigarette smoke.
Leave your to go cup or Starbucks in the car.
Piercings and tattoos are not as socially acceptable as some might think, consider taking them out and covering them up.
Greet everyone as if they were the Legislator you came to see. A firm handshake, not too hard, look them in the eye and state your name and who you represent (Good afternoon Sir/Ma’am, I’m Bob Smith with ABC Organization).
Know what the person looks like that you’re going to see. You will feel odd when the Senator is standing right in front of you and you don’t know it.
Be brief in your statements, give facts, and don’t make things up, answer questions appropriately.
You can leave gifts that meet the gift rule, a safe bet is items under $10.00. If you bring food it must be under $75.00. No gifts over $100.00 total value in one year to a single person.
Present a business card and a handout with agenda items and contact information.
When it’s time to leave the signals are pretty clear. Wrap it up, ask to follow up, and most important shake their hand and thank them for their time.
You’re in the office now…
Today’s the big day, you’re standing outside the office door with the big government seal, your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and your agenda is going round and round in your head. The staffer comes to you and says the Senator is ready to see you…..
Take in a deep breath and walk in like this is your 100th visit. Greet everyone with Sir or Ma’am, do it with pride and enthusiasm, let them see you are there to conduct business. You will spend just a few minutes in the reception area doing introductions before the meeting, this is where the ice will be broken and you can calm down a little, kind of catch your breath time. Take note of who is there and get a feel for what position they hold. They may ask if you want coffee or a drink, you won’t be long so no thank you is a good reply.
After introductions you will be escorted into the Legislators office and offered a seat. Remember things are fast paced so they want you to get right to the point, game on! Hand them your business card and your handout of action items. Offer a quick bio of who you are and where you are from, have it relate to why you are there. The common questions are then “So what can I do for you today” or “So what brings you to Washington or the Capital”.
Lay your cards on the table. Well Senator/Congressmen/Sir/Ma’am there is recently a Bill introduced or a current law that effects my organization in this manner, then follow your agenda the way you rehearsed it. Speak clearly and look into the eyes of the receiver, you want to make sure they are hearing your message. Pause briefly between action items and always allow for questions. Before you know it the dialogue will seem like two old friends chatting about old times but stay professional. Get a feel for their position and remember they may not take your side so don’t get offended.
When you have finished stating your position ask if there are any question or need for more information. If they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer say “I don’t have that information available but I can get it and follow up with you. DO NOT make up an answer, they most likely already know the answer before they asked you!
Your meeting will end relatively quickly. Stand and shake their hand and ask if you can follow up with them in a few weeks but most importantly thank them for their time. Now go take a break.
Or, so you went to meet a Senator, Congressmen or Representative and you enter the office and the staff member says “Sorry but the Senator couldn’t make it, he is delayed but I can meet with you now”. You need to treat that staff member as if they are the Senator! Legislative Assistance or Chief of Staffs are normally between 21-25 years old, very well educated, most likely know more about your agenda than you do and the Senator respects their opinion. These staff members are there to build a resume and impress their boss and they are very good at it. So when you’re speaking to the staff, you’re speaking to the Senator, don’t get caught short. It’s an odd feeling to present something so important to you to someone your children’s age but rest assured they will convey your thoughts to their boss as you would have presented it. If you are less than professional to the staffers that too will be brought to their boss.
After your meetings as soon as you get home or to your hotel room you should send an email to each legislator thanking them for their time. Send your thank you email individually, not as a group email
The follow up
When you left your legislators office you should have left behind a handout with your action items and contact information. About 3 weeks after your meeting it would be appropriate to follow up with your legislator either by email or a phone call, expect to communicate with a staff member. If by phone then introduce yourself and indicate it’s a follow up call and state what your agenda was in reference to. Be prepared to answer more questions or to respond to unanswered question that you said you would get back to them. If your follow up is through email then you should attach a file of your handout and in the subject line indicate this is a follow up to previously discussed issues. In the main text briefly summarize your action item and state you are following up on any open items. If they asked you a question that you couldn’t answer this would be the time to restate their question and answer it appropriately. Even though this is email remember you are addressing elected officials and it’s not your buddy asking about golf, keep it professional.
Whether your goals are to meet with US Senators and Congressmen or State Senators and Representatives the planning, preparation and level of professionalism is the same. Know your agenda, eat it, breathe it, and sleep it. Pick the right legislators to get your message heard, use the websites I provided and do your research! The day of your meeting look, act and be professional, own your agenda! Firm handshakes and look them in the eye when you address everyone in the office, treat everyone with the utmost respect. Be brief and to the point, be factual. Thank them for their time and be sure to let them know you wish to follow up in the future. Follow up.
These seem like very basic procedures to follow regardless of your audience but when presented with the idea these are our lawmakers we tend to buckle at the knees at the thought of addressing them. Follow these basic guidelines, be professional, speak with passion and conviction, be polite, and most of all have fun.
Samuel R Cain ( 271-720-9357 )