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03/25/2016

Legislative Advocacy 101: Writing Letters to Elected Officials

Keep them Brief, Focused, Personal and Professional

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In our continuing series on advocacy tips, we look to arm you with the tools needed to get the attention of your elected officials. This week we will be focusing on the age-old skill of letter writing and how it can be applied to the modern era.

You have the right to write! Most of the time, the purpose of writing a letter to an elected official is to request action on a specific issue or policy. Letters sent by constituents carry powerful messages, but you need to make your letter stand out from the crowd. You can do this by keeping it professional, short, and focused.

When you think about the purpose being to take a specific action, it makes the task a little easier. You aren’t necessarily writing to persuade them to adopt your way of thinking. If you want to deepen an elected official’s support and understanding of the travel economy, the best way is through face-to-face conversations and providing research to back up your discussion. Then, when an issue needs action, a letter lets your elected official know which decision you support.

Form letters are not as effective. As Bradford Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation puts it, “Do you really think an [elected official] is going to read a hundred of these missives and say, ‘Oh, NOW, I’m convinced,” then suddenly run in the member’s office like a converted zealot?” Of course, the answer is no. He emphasizes that the point of letters is to request things of your elected official, not to try and persuade them to your point of view.

Indeed, 96 percent of offices surveyed by the Congressional Management Foundation say that individualized letters from constituents can have at least some influence on members of Congress. Their research shows that receiving a personal letter from you ranks third in effective ways to get an elected official’s attention. The first is when you make a personal visit; the second is when a person representing collective interests makes a visit (such as when the Ohio Travel Association meets with policymakers).

With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to be successful in your letter writing.

Ask for Specific or Measurable Things

  • If your letter is a non-measurable request to “put the pressure on” or to “fight hard,” it will probably be ignored.
  • Be specific right out of the gate! “Please support,” “Please oppose” or “Please sign on as a co-sponsor” are all reasonable requests.
  • Elected officials keep a tally of how constituents feel about an issue, such as “Fifty letters received in support of the issue; 1,000 against.” So never feel it’s not worth your time to voice your opinion.

Be Brief

  • New advice from staffers indicates that your letter or email should not exceed seven to 10 sentences or around one page. Yikes! But this makes sense. People are busy, and this includes your elected officials. Keeping your correspondence brief will allow them to read your request without overloading them.

Stay Focused

  • Limit yourself to one issue per letter. Covering multiple issues with one letter will not only lengthen it, but this will distract the reader from the issues that you may find more important.

Include Essential Materials

  • When you begin writing your letter, you should include two things as soon as you can: 1. The bill number, title or reason for writing, and 2. your position and request on the matter. Quickly identifying these key elements will increase the likelihood that they will be read and understood.
  • Refer to them by their title. “Dear Senator______,” “Dear Congressman_____.” Make sure to show them respect.
  • While a handwritten note can be very effective as a thank you note, most officials prefer a typed note, as they are easier to read. If you do feel that the letter needs to be handwritten, use professional stationary.
  • Address your letter properly. On the envelope, refer to your elected official as The Honorable, then include where they are in the government. It should look something like this:

The Honorable (First Name, Last Name)
Ohio House of Representatives
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43266-0603
And make sure you include your return address.

Own Your Letter

  • We’ve all come across them – form letters to elected officials where you just add your name and drop them in the mail. Sure, that’s quick and easy. But if it’s quick and easy for you, imagine how many other people think the same thing.
  • Research from the Congressional Management Foundation states that form faxes, emails and letters are the least effective way to get your opinion heard. 
  • Send your own thoughts in a letter you've written yourself, and you'll stand out. Your letter will be remembered. Your elected official will be getting hundreds of the same letter (or emails) with small changes. Creating your own differentiates you and makes you stand out. It will also bolster what you need to say, as it shows that you care enough about the issue to take the time to craft the letter yourself.

Make it Personal

  • Mention any particular expertise and why you are qualified above others to be heard. As an example, say, "As someone who supports their family because of a tourism job ..." or “As a business owner in the tourism industry for 15 years,” ...
  • Avoid using industry jargon, such as NTA, OTA, OACVB, USTA, VCB, etc.

Make Your Voice Larger

  • While making it personal is important, do not make the letter just about you. Make it about your employees, your partners and the residents of your community.
  • Talk about the group you are representing. Don’t say “I,” say “we.”
  • Avoid saying, “My hope is that you’ll do X,” instead say that “The 2,000 individuals living in Happyville, Ohio will benefit when you do X,” or “The Widget-Making Museum and its 50 employees request you to do X.” Demonstrate that your request impacts a larger audience.

Show Them You Care

  • Send thank you notes. Seriously. They build relationships and can really help your case when you send a request to your elected official. Advocacy is all about building relationships, remember. So thank your elected official. Thank them if the job they’re doing is helping you. Thank them if they listened to what you had to say. Send a follow-up thank you note if you recently sent a request letter. Just make sure you thank them.

For more from our Legislative Advocacy 101 series, visit the following:

Engaging Lawmakers on Social Media