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Insider Tips for Email Communication with Congress

This blog post is by Chris Nehls, originally posted June 17, 2014 on connectivity.cqrollcall.com

Insider Tips for Email Communication With Congress

Sen. Burns checks his email
Former Senator Conrad Burns of Montana reads his email

Reports of email’s death in advocacy have been greatly exaggerated. Nowhere is this  notion more true than on Capitol Hill. Even with the growing sophistication of social media platforms — not to mention the multi-billion-dollar lobbying industry — email remains the most important form of communication for both constituents and office holders alike.

Still, advocates’ ability to bundle together emails en mass have made the tool a blessing and a curse for congressional offices. Email remains their most cost-effective way to communicate with constituents about their concerns; yet the sheer volume of electronic communications that most offices receive mean that congressional staff place a priority on how efficiently they sort and categorize incoming messages. For instance, some Senate offices receive as many as 25,000 pieces of incoming correspondence a week.

At a recent forum hosted by the strategic communications firm Beekeeper Group and moderated by Bradford Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation, House and Senate staffers revealed methods that advocates can use to ensure their messages capture the attention of congressional offices. Here are some insights:

Social and Email Are Different

First, it’s important to note that panelists emphasized that social media and email exist under two separate communications silos. Their offices’ social media accounts are the domain of press teams, not legislative staff. Twitter blasts about issues, therefore, are unlikely to grab the attention of those staffers who are helping members with policy decisions.

Some staffers said their offices ranked social media communication just above faxes in terms of quality of correspondence.

Keep It Personal

Correspondence, even if it’s done by many people all at once about a particular issue, is still a human endeavor. Even for what amounts to form letters, make sure the organization sending the email is identified clearly. Staffers may have friends or contacts within the organization whom they can reach out to on the issue. Advocates that have personal relationships with staffers should do the same.

Even if writers don’t have those personal connections to draw upon, they should still personalize messages. Include information like a writer’s profession, their professional experience, or their rank. If that experience is related to the policy area discussed, the message becomes all the more convincing.

Personalize the policy implications of the issue, too. Emails that explain clearly how an issue impacts the writers’ daily life clearly may be compelling enough for a staffer not just to write back, but pick up the phone and call.

Know the Audience

Remember, the first set of eyes reading any email is a staffer who’s likely a little overwhelmed because of limited hiring budgets. Enough compelling, well-written emails on a topic will stick in his or her mind to run the issue up the office chain of command. And if emails are too obtuse on the policy or bill at issue, the harder categorizing that email will be for the staffer.

Advocates sending “thank you” or “spank you” emails — those praising or chiding members for votes on specific legislation — first have to make sure that they are correct in how the member voted. And while “thank you’s” are a nice gesture, emailing support before a tough vote is more important for a member than after.

By rule, committees cannot perform constituent services. No one is there to read or respond to constituent emails. And blasting the entire committee will only catch messages in spam filters set up to discard emails from people outside of a member’s district. An advocates should only email the offices of his or her personal representative.

If that representative is not a member of a committee dealing with a specific piece of legislation, it still is worth sending an email about it. Remember, members lobby each other, and everyone has a piece of the appropriations process, even if they’re not on the Appropriations Committee.

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